Why Do Married Men Make More Money?

In 1979, Martha Hill, a researcher at the University of Michigan, observed a strange fact about married men: they make a lot more money, at least compared to their unmarried peers. (According to Hill’s numbers, marriage led to a roughly 25 percent boost in pay.) What’s more, the effect remained even after Hill controlled for most of the relevant variables, including work experience and training. 

In the decades since, this correlation has been repeatedly confirmed, with dozens of studies showing that married men earn between 10 and 50 percent more than their unmarried peers. (Because the world is so unfair, women get hit with a marriage penalty, as married females earn roughly 10 percent less than unmarried women.) What’s more, these income differences among men don’t seem to depend on any of the obvious demographic differences, including age, education, race and IQ scores. For whatever strange reason, companies seem to find married men more valuable. Their human capital is worth more capital.

But why? What does marriage have to do with work performance? A number of competing explanations for the male marriage premium have been proposed. There is the discrimination hypothesis – employers are biased against bachelors – and the selection explanation, which posits that men who are more likely to get married are also more likely to have the character traits required for career success. (If you can get along with your spouse, then you can probably get along with your colleagues.) Another possibility is that married men benefit from the specialization of their labor: because they don’t have to be worry about the dishes or other household chores – that’s the job of their partners - they’re more productive at work. Lastly, there is the marriage-as-education hypothesis, which suggests that married men might learn valuable skills from their marriage. In the midst of a long-term relationship, men might get trained in things like commitment and self-control, which are also useful at the office. If true, this means that the male marriage premium is rooted in something real, and that it has a causal effect on productivity. Companies are right to pay extra for men with wedding rings.

There have been a number of clever attempts to test these different possibilities. Economists have looked at the effect of shotgun weddings and the impact of a working wife on a husband’s earnings. They’ve looked at whether the gains of the marriage premium effect occur all at once or over time – most conclude the wage gains accrue over time – and that the premium dissipates as couples approach divorce. 

And yet, despite this bevy of research, the literature remains full of uncertainty. In a new paper, published last month in Labour Economics, the economists Megan de Linde Leonard and T.D. Stanley summarize the current confusion. “Researchers report estimates of the marriage-wage premium that range from 100% to a negative 39% of average wage,” they write. “In fact, over the past four years, we found 258 estimates, nine percent of which are statistically negative, 40% are significantly positive” and many of which were indistinguishable from zero. So the effect is either positive, negative, or non-existent. So much for consensus.

To help parse the disagreement, de Linde Leonard and Stanley use a technique called meta-regression analysis. The statistical equations are way over my head, but de Linde Leonard was kind enough to describe the basic methodology by email:

"To do a meta-analysis, we search for all papers, published and unpublished, that have estimates of the phenomenon that we are interested in. We then record those estimates into a spreadsheet along with other important factors about the study. (Was it published? What data set was used? Was the data from the US?, etc.) Once that is complete, we use statistical analysis to draw out the signal from the noise. We don't only use studies that we consider to be best practice; we use all the studies we can find and let the data tell us what is true. That is the beauty of the technique. We don't have to rely on our (almost always biased) professional judgment to decide what is real and important. We let the body of research do the talking."

So what did the body of research say? After looking at more than 661 estimates of the male marriage premium, de Linde Leonard and Stanley settled on a 9.4 percent premium among male workers in the United States. (The effect seems to be less potent in other countries.) Interestingly, the male marriage premium seems to getting more powerful in the 21st century, as a review of the most recent studies finds an average premium of 12.8 percent. 

What’s more, the meta-regression technique allowed the economists to assess the likelihood of various explanations for the marriage premium. Since the effect is increasing among men, even as the percentage of women in the workforce continues to increase, it seems unlikely that labor specialization plays a large role. (In other words, not doing the dishes doesn’t make you more productive at the office.*) De Linde Leonard and Stanley are also skeptical of the selection hypothesis, which suggests that married men only make more money because the men who tend to marry already possess the traits associated with high salaries. While the selection effect is real, the economists conclude that it’s not the main driver of the marriage premium, and probably accounts for just a 2 percent bump in wages, or less than 20 percent of the total marriage premium.

We’re left, then, with the marriage-as-education explanation. According to this theory, matrimony is a kind of college for the emotions, instilling partners with a very valuable set of non-cognitive traits. As De Linde Leonard and Stanley point out, marriage might cause men to “‘settle down,’ be more stable, and focused on work and career.” While we often draw a sharp distinction between the worlds of work and love, and assume that the traits and skills that are essential in one domain are irrelevant in the other, the marriage premium is a reminder that such distinctions are blurry at best. In fact, the talents that married men learn from marriage are roughly equivalent, at least in monetary value, to the income boost the average worker gets from attending college, but not graduating. (A bachelor’s degree gives people a much bigger salary boost.) Of course, women also probably pick up useful mental skills from matrimony, which makes the existence of the female marriage penalty – even if it’s just a penalty against having kids - that much more unjust. 

And yet, despite the plausibility of the marriage-as-education theory, we know remarkably little about what’s learned from our closest romantic relationships. There’s some scattered evidence: men who score higher in grit are also more likely to stay married, and those with secure romantic attachments are also happier employees. But these are just glimpses and glances of what remains a mostly mysterious schooling. Besides, the greatest “skills” we learn from marriage (or really any committed relationship) might not be measurable, at least not in the psychometric sense. This is rampant speculation, rooted in my own n of 1 experience, but it seems that marriage can provide us with a valuable sense of perspective, stretching out the timescale of our expectations. We learn that moods pass, fights get forgotten, forgiveness is possible. We realize that everything worthwhile requires years of struggle (even love!), and that success is mixed up with the salty residue of sweat and tears. I have no idea how much that wisdom is worth at the office, but I damned sure know it helps with the rest of life. 

*I’m actually partial to what might be called the non-specialization-of-labor hypothesis, which is that spouses often add tremendous value to one’s work. Call it the Vera effect

de Linde Leonard, Megan, and T. D. Stanley. "Married with children: What remains when observable biases are removed from the reported male marriage wage premium." Labour Economics 33 (2015): 72-80.

Does the Science of Self-Control Diminish Our Self-Control?

In 1998, the psychologist Roy Baumeister introduced the “strength” model of self-control. It’s a slightly misleading name, since the model attempts to describe the weakness of the will, why people so easily succumb to temptation and impulse. In Baumeister’s influential paper – it’s since been cited more than 2500 times – he and colleagues describe several simple experiments that expose our mental frailties. In one trial, subjects forced to eat radishes instead of chocolate candies gave up far sooner when asked to solve an impossible puzzle. In another trial, people told to suppress their emotions while watching a tragic scene from Terms of Endearment solved significantly fewer anagrams than those who watched a funny video instead. The lesson, writes Baumeister et al., is that the ego is easily depleted, a limited resource quickly exhausted by minor acts of self-control.

It’s a compelling theory, as it seems to explain many of our human imperfections. It’s why a long day at work often leads to a pint of ice cream on the couch and why we get grumpy and distracted whenever we miss a meal. Because the will is so feeble, we must learn to pick our battles, exerting power only when it counts. In a particularly clever follow-up experiment, published in 2007, Baumeister and colleagues showed that a variety of typical self-control tasks led to lower glucose levels in the blood. (The mind, it seems, consumes more energy when attempting to restrain itself.) Not surprisingly, giving “depleted” subjects a glass of sweet lemonade improved their subsequent performance on yet another self-control task. However, depleted subjects given lemonade sweetened with fake sugar experienced no benefits. Saccharine might trick the tongue, but it can't help your frontal lobes.

So far, so depressing: as described by Baumeister, self-control is a Sisyphean struggle, since the very act of exerting control makes it harder to control ourselves in the near future. We can diet in the morning, but that only makes us more likely to gorge in the afternoon. The id always wins.

But what if the will isn’t so fragile? In recent years, several papers have complicated and critiqued the strength (aka ego depletion) model of self-control. In a 2012 paper, Miller et al. pointed out that only people who believed in the impotence of willpower – they agreed that “after a strenuous activity, your energy is depleted and you must rest to get it refueled again” – performed worse on repeated tests of the will. In contrast, subjects who believed that self-control was seemingly inexhaustible – “After a strenuous mental activity, you feel energized for further challenging activities” – showed no depletion effects at all. This suggests that the exhaustion of willpower is caused by a belief about our mental resources, and not by an actual shortage of resources. We think we’re weak, and so we are. The science becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

That’s a long introduction to the latest volley in the ego-depletion debate. In a new paper published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Veronika Job, Gregory Walton, Katharina Bernecker and Carol Dweck left the lab and tracked more than 100 students at a selective American university. The assessment began with a survey about their willpower beliefs. Is it depleted by strenuous mental activity? Or does “mental stamina fuel itself”? Then, the students were sent weekly questionnaires about their self-control failures in a variety of domains, from academics (“How often did you watch TV instead of studying?”) to emotional control  (“How often did you have trouble controlling your temper?”) Finally, Job, et al., asked students to anticipate the amount of self-control they’d need to exert over the next week. Did they have a big exam coming up? A class presentation? Were they having problems with friends or professors? In addition to these surveys, the scientists got access to the students’ GPA. 

When the demand for self-control was low, the students’ beliefs about willpower had no effect on their self-control performance. However, when the semester got stressful, and the students felt a greater need to resist temptation, the scientists observed a significant difference: those who believed they had more self-control were better able to control their selves. Here are the scientists: “Far from conserving their resources and showing strong self-regulation when needed, students who endorsed the limited theory [of self-control] and who dealt with high demands over the term, procrastinated more (e.g., watching TV instead of studying), ate more junk food, and reported more excessive spending as compared to students with a nonlimited theory about willpower.”  (This relationship held even after controlling for trait levels of self-control.) What’s more, these beliefs had a tangible impact on their college grades, as students with a non-limited view of self-control got a significantly higher GPA when taking heavy course loads.

It’s a fascinating paper, limited mostly by its reliance on self-reports. (The GPA data is the lone exception.) I’m not sure how much we should trust a college student’s retrospective summary of his or her self-control performance, or how those reports might be shaped by their implicit beliefs. Are you more likely to notice and remember your failures of willpower if you believe the will is bound to fail? I have no idea. But it would be nice to see future studies track our lapses in a more objective fashion, and hopefully over a longer period of time.

That said, these quibbles obscure a bigger point. We are constantly being besieged with bodily urges that we’re trying to resist. Maybe it’s a rumbling belly, or a twitchy attention, or a leg muscle pooling with lactic acid. Although we know what we’re supposed to do – not eat a candy bar, stay on task, keep working out – it’s hard for the mind to persist. And so we give in, and tell ourselves we didn’t have a choice. The flesh can't be denied.

But here’s the good news: we’re probably tougher than we think. In one paper, published last year in Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, subjects who were flashed happy faces for 16 milliseconds at a time – that’s way too fast for conscious awareness – pedaled a bike at an intense pace for 25 minutes and 19 seconds. Those flashed sad faces only made it for 22 minutes and 22 seconds. (An even bigger boost was observed after some cyclists were primed with action words, such as GO and ENERGY.) What caused the difference? The subliminal faces didn’t strengthen their muscles, or slow down their heart rate, or mute the pain in their quads. Instead, the visuals provided a subtle motivational boost, which helped the cyclists resist the pain for 12 percent longer.

These results suggest, like the recent Job, et al. paper, that our failures of self-control are primarily not about the physical limits of the brain and body. Those limits exist, of course – the legs will eventually give out and the frontal lobes need glucose. But in the course of an ordinary day, those brute limits are far away, which means that the constraining variable on self-control is often psychological, tangled up with our motivations and expectations. And that’s why our implicit beliefs about self-control and the mind can be so important. (And also why we need to ensure our kids are given the most useful beliefs, which Dweck refers to as a "growth mindset."*) If you believe the self is weak or that the mind is fixed – say, if you’ve read all those ego depletion papers – then you might doubt your ability to stay strong; the lapse becomes inevitable. “A nonlimited theory does not turn people into self-control super heroes who never give in to temptations,” write Job, et al. “However, they lean in when demands on self-regulation are high.” The self they believe in does not wilt after choosing a radish; it is not undone by a long day; it can skip the lemonade and still keep it together.

We are not perfect. Not even close. But maybe we’re less bound to our imperfections than we think.

*In a new paper, Paunesku et. al. show that offering high-school students a brief growth mindset intervention - teaching that them "struggle is an opportunity for growth," and not an indicator of failure - led to significantly better grades among those at risk of dropping out. While this result itself isn't new, Paunesku showed that it was scalable, and could be delivered to thousands of students at low-cost using online instruction.

Job, Veronika, et al. "Implicit theories about willpower predict self-regulation and grades in everyday life." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (April 2015)

Can People Change? The Case of Don Draper

Can people change? That is the question, it seems to me, at the dark heart of Mad Men.  We’ve spent eight years watching Don Draper try to become a better man. He wants to drink less and swim more. He wants to get close to his kids and stay faithful to his wife.

But little has changed; Don remains mostly the same. The world around him is now wearing orange plaid and bushy sideburns, but Don still looks like an astronaut, clad in crisp suits and pomade hair. He’s still sipping bourbon in bars, still sleeping around, still most alive when selling himself to strangers. What we’ve learned from the passing of time is that Don has learned nothing.  

I have no idea how Mad Men will end. Perhaps Don will have a midlife epiphany and move to California. Maybe he’ll find true love in the arms of a waitress from Racine. But given the pace of the show so far, I’d bet on a far less dramatic finale. If anything, the turbulence of the sixties only highlights the brittleness of human character. Fashions change. Politics change. A man can walk on the moon. But we are stuck with ourselves. 

Is this true? Are we really stuck? Do people ever change? Put another way: is Don Draper the exception or the rule? 

Obviously, the empirical answers are irrelevant to the success of Mad Men; the art doesn’t need to obey the facts of social science. But let’s admit that these are interesting mysteries, and that our capacity for change isn’t just relevant on cable television. It’s also a recurring plot point of real life.  

The best way to grapple with these scientific questions is to follow people over time, measuring them within the context of a longitudinal study. And since Mad Men is a basically the longitudinal study of a single man over a decade, it might be worth comparing its basic conclusions – most people don’t change – with the results of actual longitudinal research.

The most fitting comparison is the Grant Study of Adult Development, which has been tracking more than 200 men who were sophomores at Harvard between 1939 and 1944. Every few years, the subjects submit to a lengthy interview and a physical exam; their wives and children are sent questionnaires; they are analyzed using the latest medical tests, whether it’s a Rorschach blot or an fMRI. The oldest subjects are now in their mid-nineties, making them a few years older than Don Draper.

George Vaillant led the Grant study for more than thirty years, and has written extensively about its basic findings. His first survey of the project, Adaptation to Life, is a classic; his most recent book, Triumphs of Experience, provides a snapshot of the men as they approach the end of life. And while Vaillant’s writing is full of timeless wisdom and surprising correlations – alcoholism is the leading cause of divorce; a loving childhood is more predictive of income than IQ scores; loneliness dramatically increases the risk of chronic disease - it’s most enduring contribution to the scientific literature involves the reality of adult development.

Because people change. Or rather: we never stop changing, not even as old men. In fact, the persistence of personality change is one of the great themes of the Grant study. The early books are full of bold claims. But then, as the years pass, the stories of the men become more complicated, subtle, human. 

Take divorce. Vaillant initially assumed, based on his interviews with the Grant subjects, that “divorce was a serious indicator of poor mental health.” It signaled an unwillingness to commit, or perhaps an inability to deal with intimacy. These marriages didn’t fail because they were bad marriages. They failed because the men were bad partners, just like Don.

But time is the great falsifier. When the subjects were in their seventies and eighties, Vaillant conducted extensive interviews with them about their marriages. As expected, more than 90 percent of those in consistently happy first marriages were still happy. The same pattern applied to those stuck in poor relationships – they were still miserable, and probably should have gotten divorced. However, Vaillant was startled by what happened to those men who divorced and later remarried: roughly 85 percent of them said “their current marriages were happy - and had been for an average length of thirty-three years.” This data forced Vaillant to reconsider his beliefs about divorce. Instead of seeing marital failure as an innate character flaw, he came to believe that it was “often a symptom of something else,” and that these men had learned how to become good husbands. They changed.

The same idea returns again and again, both in the statistics and the individual case studies. The man raised in a loveless home becomes a loving father; the alcoholic stops drinking while another one starts; some gain wisdom, others grow bitter. The self is a verb, always becoming. As Vaillant writes, “Our journeys through this world are filled with discontinuities.” 

Of course, longitudinal studies are not the only way to measure adult development. In a recent Science paper, the psychologists Jordi Quoidbach, Daniel Gilbert and Timothy Wilson came up with a novel way to measure our inner changes. The survey itself was simple: they asked more than 19,000 adults, ranging in age from 18 to 68 years, questions about how much they’d changed during the previous ten years and how much they expected to change over the next ten. By comparing the predictions of subjects to the self-reports of those who were older, the scientists were able to measure the mismatch between how much we actually changed (a significant amount) and how much we expected to change in the future (not very much at all.)

The scientists refer to this as the “end of history illusion,” noting that people continually dismiss the possibility that their personalities, values, and preferences will evolve over time. As the scientists write, “People, it seems, regard the present as a watershed moment at which they have finally become the person they will be for the rest of their lives.” But no such moment exists. History is never over, and we never stop changing.

In his writing, Vaillant repeatedly quotes the famous line of Heraclitus: “No man ever steps in the same river twice; for it is not the same river, and he is not the same man.” Mad Men shows us the changes of the river. It shows us a society disrupted by the pill and the civil rights movement and Vietnam. But Don remains the same, forever stuck in his own status quo. For a show obsessed with verisimilitude – every surface is faithful to the period - this might be the most unrealistic thing on the screen.

Vaillant, George E. Adaptation to Life. Harvard University Press, 1977.

Vaillant, George E. Triumphs of Experience. Harvard University Press, 2012.

Quoidbach, Jordi, Daniel T. Gilbert, and Timothy D. Wilson. "The end of history illusion." Science 339.6115 (2013): 96-98.

Should Cell Phones Be Banned In Cars?

The other day I was talking on the phone, handsfree, while driving a car. I was trying to avoid rush hour traffic, traveling on some unfamiliar side streets. Out of nowhere I hear a loud horn, followed by some curse words. I look around: I’m the only one here. I must be the motherfucking asshole.

The other driver had a point: I’d just run a stop sign. It wasn’t a close call – no screeching brakes were required – but it could have been ugly. I got off the phone and drove the rest of the way home in chastened silence.

This little episode got me thinking: how bad is it to talk on the phone when driving? Does it really increase the risk of an accident? These are psychological questions with vast practical implications, as more than 80 percent of drivers admit to cellphone use while behind the wheel. According to a 2007 survey by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA), roughly 11 percent of drivers are using a cellphone on the road at any given moment.

At first glance, the answer seems obvious: driving requires focus. We should give our full attention to these 4000 pound machines hurtling down the road at high speed. Such a response is rooted in everyday experience – 45 percent of drivers say they’ve been hit or almost hit by another driver chatting on the phone – and numerous studies, both in the field and the lab. Perhaps the most cited work comes from David Strayer at the University of Utah. In one study, Strayer and colleagues observed more than 1700 drivers as they approached a four way stop sign on a residential street. The scientists noted whether or not the drivers were talking on the phone. They also noted whether or not they obeyed all traffic laws. The differences were not subtle: those drivers on the phone were roughly 10 times more likely to commit a stopping violation. (Handsfree devices provided "no safety advantage.") In other words, I’m not the only one.

A similar pattern emerged from realistic simulations of driving conducted in the Strayer lab. In one study, the scientists compared the performance of 40 drivers under three conditions: driving without distraction, talking on the phone while driving and driving with a blood alcohol concentration at the legal limit. Based on the detailed driver data, Strayer, Jason Watson and Frank Drews concluded that “the impairments associated with cell-phone drivers may be as great as those commonly observed with intoxicated drivers.” 

We could stop here. And many do: Strayer’s research is frequently cited in discussions around cell phone driving laws. It seems to provide clear evidence that phone conversations significantly impair driver performance. The gadgets should probably be banned.

There is, however, an obvious rebuttal to this research, at least if you stop and think about it. If talking on a cell phone while driving is really as dangerous as being drunk, then why haven’t crash rates surged along with cell phone usage? Pull up to a red light in my city and half the drivers are talking to their dashboards, or maybe into a dangling white cord. (The other half are texting.) And yet, the roads are not littered with wrecked cars.

This conundrum led me to a recent study by Saurabh Bhargava at Carnegie Mellon and Vikram Pathania at the London School of Economics. The scientists begin their paper with a telling chart, which documents the seemingly inverse relationship between cell phone ownership and crash rates:

What the chart doesn’t show, of course, is that the rise of cell phones has also paralleled the rise of air bags, anti-lock brakes, traction control, automated braking systems and other car technologies that, at least in theory, have also made driving a less fraught activity. It’s entirely possible (likely, even) that the rate of car crashes would have plummeted even more if it weren’t for cell phones.

But Bhargava and Pathania are only getting warmed up. The bulk of their study is taken up with an attempt to establish a causal relationship between “cell phone use and crashes in the field.” To do this, they exploit a natural experiment triggered by an old quirk in the cost of a cell phone call. I’d forgotten about these phone plans, but many cellular companies used to divide weekdays into “peak” and “off peak” hours.  For the most part, calls placed during the “off peak” hours did not count towards the allotted minutes included in the plan. Not surprisingly, this led to a 7.2 percent spike in calls placed by drivers just after the start of the “off peak” period, which was typically 9 PM.

Bhargava and Pathania then compared the crash rate from 8 to 9 PM – the hour before the surge in cell phone use – to the 9 to 10 PM hour. Did the rise in calling correlate with a rise in crashes? The answer: Not really. (They also ran control analyses on weekends, when the peak rules were not in effect, and on crash rates from 1995 to 1998, before phone plans had peak restrictions.) While this null finding does not, by any means, rule out a possible increase in crash risk caused by cell phone conversations, it does suggest that, as Bhargava and Parathi note, “cellular use is not analogous to drunk driving as some policymakers and academics have suggested.” In particular, it suggests that prior estimates of the hazards posed by cell phone conversations in the car were significantly too high.

The finding comes with numerous caveats. For starters, Bhargava and Pathania aren’t able to ensure that their cell phone data comes from drivers on the phone, and not chatty passengers. It’s also possible that the lack of increased crash risk is unique to either the region in question (outside the downtown area of a large city in California) or the time (between 9 and 10 PM.) Perhaps the drivers most vulnerable to the hazards of cell phone use are less likely to be driving at night, or maybe the lack of cars on the road at off peak hours makes distraction less dangerous. It’s also possible that the 9 to 10 PM sample is picking up an “unrepresentative” set of cell phone calls. Perhaps these calls are less urgent, or somehow require less attention than calls made earlier in the day.

To mitigate some of these concerns, the economists conducted two additional statistical analyses. First, they looked for correlations between local variation in cell phone ownership – some regions adopted mobile technology at a faster pace – and changes in crash rate. No correlations were found. Secondly, they looked to see if there had been any impact on the number of fatal crashes in three states (New York. Connecticut and New Jersey) and two large cities (Chicago and Washington D.C.) that had banned handheld cell phone usage. They found no short-term or long-term impact triggered by these changes in the law. More recent studies of other states have come to similar conclusions. 

This is the part of the blog where I tell you the neat takeaway, how this new study displaces all of our old knowledge. But it’s not that simple, is it? While Bhargava and Pathania estimate a minimal increase in crash risk, Strayer’s experimental research estimates a 20 to 30 percent increase. Police annotations on accidents put the increased risk around 1 percent, while a 1997 analysis of individual crash records puts the increased risk closer to 33 percent. Meanwhile, a paper looking at calls made using the hands free OnStar system found no evidence of an increased crash risk (at least for crashes that involved the deployment of an airbag), and a thorough field study by the NHTSA came to similar conclusions, but an analysis by Jed Kolko found that increased cell phone ownership was associated with an 11 percent increase in fatal crashes in bad weather. 

In short, the effect is either huge or negligible. Talking on the phone either makes you drive like a drunkard or has virtually no impact on your performance. Banning all cell phone use in the car will either save no one or it will save thousands of lives every year. In an email, Bhargava put it this way: "One way I think to reasonably reconcile the lab findings and field findings like ours is that cell phones could distract, as lab studies sensibly suggest, but on the road, people may compensate for such distraction by using their phones in particularly safe situations, or adjusting their driving when on the phone. It’s also possible that cell phone use simply substitutes for other risk-taking behaviors such as talking to a passenger or playing with the radio.” This substitution effect might be especially potent in the era of smartphones - it’s almost certainly safer to talk on the phone than to send a text while driving.

Social science is hard. If nothing else, the struggle to pin down the riskiness of talking on the phone in the car is a reminder of the difficulties or parsing causes in a world overstuffed with variables. It’s been eighteen years since the first prominent study of cell phone use and driving and yet we’re still not that close to a definitive answer. 

As for me? I’m fairly convinced by these field studies that posit a lower risk ratio. Nevertheless, the elegant statistics carry less emotional weight than my own n of 1 experience. I have no idea if the conversation caused my traffic violation, or if it was triggered instead by one of the many other factors at play.  But at the time it felt like I should just shut up and drive. Such feelings carry little validity – people are notoriously terrible at introspecting on their mental limitations – but it’s what comes to mind first when my phone rings and I’m on the road.  

Suarabh Bhargava and Vikram Pathania. “Driving Under the (Cellular) Influence.” American Economic Journal: Economic Policy, Vol. 5, No. 3, p. 92-125, 2013.

The Power of Redemption Stories

The story of redemption is as American as apple pie. It’s there in the Autobiography of Ben Franklin – he went from being a fugitive teen in Philadelphia to the founder of a nation - and the pulp fiction of Horatio Alger, which recount the “rags to riches” tales of working-class boys in the mean city. It’s the narrative that President George W. Bush pitched on the campaign trail - he was “born again” after years of drinking and troublemaking – and what Oprah preached on her show, often using her own painful childhood as an example.

Dan McAdams, a psychologist at Northwestern University, has spent years studying the details of these redemptive narratives. He describes five distinct themes that define this “quintessentially American story about how to live a good life.” The first theme is “early advantage,” as the protagonist becomes aware of their special blessings; they feel marked from the start. This is soon followed by scenes in which the narrator describes their “sensitivity to suffering,” how they noticed the unfairness of the world. Then, there is the trope of “moral steadfastness”: these people live their lives guided by a strong sense of right and wrong. This is followed by “redemption sequences,” or moments in which a significant mistake or hardship – addiction, divorce, unemployment, etc. – becomes a means to absolution and grace, or what McAdams describes as the “deliverance from suffering to an enhanced status or state.” Finally, there is the education provided by the hard times, as the protagonist commits to “prosocial goals” and tries to “improve the lives of other people.”

In a new paper published in Psychological Science, McAdams and Jen Guo demonstrate the strange power of these stories of redemption, how they frame our lives, shape our personalities and influence our behavior. The scientists demonstrated this by interviewing 157 late-middle aged adults for two to three hours. The subjects were asked to describe their life as it were a novel, complete with chapters, characters and themes. After the interviews were transcribed, their stories were analyzed in terms of the five motifs of the redemptive narrative. Were there hints of “moral steadfastness”? Did the subject describe “redemption sequences”? What about “prosocial goals”?

It’s worth pointing out, of course, that these biographical tales are inherently biased and subjective. When we create a personal narrative, we are not seeking the literal truth – we are craving coherence and meaning. (As John Updike once wrote, “Composition, in crystalizing memory, displaces it.”) This is especially true of redemption narratives, which force a happy ending onto the trials and tribulations of life. In the real world, not everyone gets redeemed. Not all suffering has a point. The poet Randall Jarrell, who knew a thing or two about anguish, put it this way: “Pain comes from the darkness and we call it wisdom. It is pain.”

And yet, and yet. For many people, these redemption narratives – even when they simplify the facts of life - help them live better lives. In the new paper, McAdams and Guo show that the five themes of redemptive stories are strongly linked to “generativity,” a personality trait associated with generosity and selflessness. “Generative adults seek to give back to society,” McAdams writes in his 2006 book The Redemptive Self. “They work to make their world a better place, not just for themselves but for future generations.” McAdams then quotes a highly generative adult on the lessons he gleaned from his hardest times: “When I die, I guess the chemicals in my body, well, they’ll go to fertilize some plants, you know, some ears of corn, and the good deeds I do will live through my children and through the people I love.”

Not surprisingly, high levels of generativity are linked to a surplus of benefits, from positive parenting styles to community engagement to better mental health. (In previous research, McAdams has shown that generativity is also inversely correlated with depression.) This suggests, say the scientists, that “the prototype of the redemptive self appears to be a life-story format that is deeply implicated in healthy psychosocial adaptation in the midlife years.”

But the question remains: why are redemptive narratives so closely associated with generativity? One possibility – and it’s only a possibility, since correlation is not causation – is that redemption narratives better prepare us for the “hard work and daunting challenges” of the well-lived life. To care for someone, or to agitate for social change, or to try to make a positive difference in the world, is to commit to a long struggle, a marathon in which success is mingled with failure and triumph is mixed up with disappointment. In order to not give up, it helps to have a life story in which pain is merely a precursor to wisdom, and every struggle an opportunity for growth. As it goes in Romans 5:3-4: “We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance, and perseverance, character, and character, hope.”

Is that biblical equation always true? Does suffering always lead to something better? Of course not. But sometimes we need to believe.

McAdams, Dan P., and Jen Guo. "Narrating the Generative Life." Psychological Science (2015)

How Fast Is Usain Bolt?

On the night of August 16, 2009, during the 100 meter final at the 2009 World Championships, Usain Bolt ran faster than any other human being has ever run before. He shattered his previous world record by more than a tenth of a second and, according to a statistical model of expected sprint times, set a pace not expected until roughly 2030. (Around the 60 meter mark, Bolt was going 27.78 miles per hour.) By any reasonable standard, it was one of the most impressive athletic achievements in modern sporting history. To watch Bolt in this race is to see a man literally leave his competitors behind. 

That, at least, is how it looks to the naked eye. However, according to a new study by Manuel Varlet and Michael Richardson, the singularity of Bolt’s performance is misleading. While it appears that Bolt was running by himself, paces ahead of everyone else, the scientists used a careful analysis of his stride to show that Bolt’s steps were actually synchronized with the steps of Tyson Gay, the American sprinter running just to his right. (Gay ran the race in 9.71 seconds, the third fastest time ever.) “These results demonstrate that even the most optimized and highly demanding individual motor skills can be modulated by the simple presence of other competitors through interpersonal synchronization processes,” write Varlet and Richardson. “This can happen without the awareness of the athletes nor that of millions of spectators.” In short, even when we’re trying outrun everyone, we can’t help but mirror the movements of someone else.

The scientists documented this synchronization using a frame-by-frame dissection of the two sprinters during the race. They found that, on roughly 28 percent of their steps, Bolt and Gay were in close sync, their strides aligned. Here’s what the data looks like, with the synchronized moments occurring around phase zero:

What makes this synchronization so surprising is that Bolt, because of his height, has an extremely long stride. As a result, it took him only 41 steps to reach the finish line; Gay required 45-46 steps. And yet, despite these innate physical differences, the sprinters often found themselves pounding the track at the exact same time.

It’s possible, of course, that this synchronization is random chance, an accidental side-effect of two men taking a lot of steps in a very short space. To rule out this possibility, Varlet and Richardson compared the strides of Bolt and Gay during their separate semifinal races. As expected, the runners exhibited far less synchronization when running apart, and shared a stride less than 10 percent of the time. (Similar results were achieved from a simulation of randomly generated phase distributions.)

So the synchronization of sprinters seems to be real. But does it matter? How did it impact the performance of Bolt and Gay? One possibility is that it slowed them down, interfering with the natural ease of their movements. Instead of sprinting the way they trained, Bolt and Gay might have warped their stride to fit the stride of someone else.

However, Varlet and Richardson conclude that syncing might have made the men faster, with the scientists citing a number of previous studies showing “that the stability and efficiency of gait behavior can be enhanced when entrained to external rhythms.” (The benefits of “external rhythms” might also explain the benefits of listening to pop music while exercising.) This suggests that having Bolt and Gay run side-by-side – each of them flanked by one of the few human beings capable of keeping pace  - improved their already near perfect form.

The moral of this clever study is that human synchronization is largely inescapable. As such, Varlet and Richardson’s analysis of two sprinters builds on a vast body of research documenting the ways in which subtle syncing influences almost all of our interactions. It doesn’t matter if we’re chatting with a stranger or kissing a lover or playing with a baby – our bodies are subtly blurred together, with pulse, breathing rate and blood pressure all converging on a similar state. The psychiatrists Thomas Lewis, Fari Amini and Richard Lannon refer to this process as “limbic resonance,” noting all the ways in which humans learn to synchronize their feelings and flesh with other people. (It's empathy in its most visceral form.) They argue that limbic resonance is especially important for the development of close relationships, and that if it weren’t for our ability to “bridge the gap between minds” we’d struggle to cope with stress or share our joys.

No man is an island. Not even the fastest man in the world.

Varlet, M., and M. J. Richardson. "What Would Be Usain Bolt's 100-Meter Sprint World Record Without Tyson Gay? Unintentional Interpersonal Synchronization Between the Two Sprinters." Journal of Experimental Psychology: Human perception and performance (2015).

The Sabermetrics of Effort

The fundamental premise of Moneyball is that the labor market of sports is inefficient, and that many teams systematically undervalue particular athletic skills that help them win. While these skills are often subtle – and the players that possess them tend to toil in obscurity - they can be identified using sophisticated statistical techniques, aka sabermetrics. Home runs are fun. On-base percentage is crucial.

The wisdom of the moneyball strategy is no longer controversial. It’s why the A’s almost always outperform their payroll, the Dodgers just hired Andrew Friedman, and baseball fans now speak in clumps of acronyms. (“His DICE and DIPS are solid, but I’m worried he’ll regress to the mean given his extremely high BABIP.”)

However, the triumph of moneyball creates a paradox, since its success depends on the very market inefficiencies it exposes. The end result is a relentless search for new undervalued skills, those hidden talents that nobody else seems to appreciate. At least not yet.

And this brings me to a new paper in the Journal of Sports Economics by Daniel Weimar and Pamela Wicker, economists at the University of Duisburg-Essen and the German Sport University Cologne. They focused on a variable of athletic performance that has long been neglected, if only because it’s so difficult to measure: effort. Intuitively, it’s obvious that player effort is important. Fans complain about basketball players slow to get back on defense; analysts gossip about pitchers who return to spring training carrying a few extra pounds; it’s what coaches are always yelling about on the sidelines. Furthermore, there's some preliminary evidence that these beliefs are rooted in reality: One study found that baseball players significantly improved their performance in the final year of their contracts, just before entering free-agency. (Another study found a similar trend among NBA players.) What explained this improvement? Effort. Hustle. Blood, sweat and tears. The players wanted a big contract, so they worked harder.

And yet, despite the obvious impact of effort, it’s surprisingly hard to isolate as a variable of athletic performance. Weimer and Wicker set out to fix this oversight. Using data gathered from three seasons and 1514 games of the Bundesliga – the premier soccer league in Germany – the economists attempted to measure individual effort as a variable of player performance, just like shots on goal or pass accuracy. They did this in two ways: 1) measuring the total distance run by each player during a game and 2) measuring the number of “intensive runs” - short sprints at high speed – by the players on the field.

The first thing to note is that the typical soccer player runs a lot. On average, players in the Bundesliga run 11.1 km per game and perform 58 intensive sprints. That said, there were still significant differences in running totals among players. Christoph Kramer averaged 13.1 km per game during the 2013-2014 season, while Carlos Zambrano ran less than 9 km; some players engaged in more than 70 sprints, while others executed less than 45. According to the economists, these differences reflect levels of effort, and not athletic ability, since “every professional soccer player should have the ability to run a certain distance per match.” If a player runs too little during a game, it’s not because his body gives out – it’s because his head doesn’t want to.

So did these differences in levels of effort matter? The answer is an emphatic yes: teams with players that run longer distances are more likely to win the game, even after accounting for a bevy of confounding variables. According to the calculations, if a team increases the average running distance of its players by 1 km (relative to the opponent), they will also increase their winning probability by 26-28 percent. Furthermore, the advantages of effort are magnified when the team difference is driven by extreme amounts of effort put forth by a few select players. As the economists note, “teams where some players run a lot while others are relatively lazy have a higher winning probability.”

Taken together, these results suggest that finding new ways to measure player effort can lead to moneyball opportunities for astute soccer teams. Since previous research demonstrates that a player’s effort has an “insignificant or negative impact” on his market value, it seems likely that teams would benefit from snapping up those players who run the most. Their extra effort isn’t appreciated or rewarded, but it will still help you win.

The same principle almost certainly applies to other sports, even if the metrics of effort aren’t quite as obvious as total running distance in soccer. How should one measure hustle in basketball? Number of loose balls chased? Time it takes to get back on defense? Or what about football? Can the same metrics of effort be used to assess linemen and wide-receivers? These questions don’t have easy answers, but given the role of effort in shaping player performance it seems worthwhile to start asking them.

There is a larger lesson here, which is that our obsession with measuring talent has led us to neglect the measurement of effort. This is a blind spot that extends far beyond the realm of professional sports. The psychologist Paul Sackett frames the issue nicely in his work on maximum tests versus typical performance. Maximum tests are high-stakes assessments that try to measure a person’s peak level of performance. Think here of the SAT, or the NFL Combine, or all those standardized tests we give to our kids. Because these tests are relatively short, we assume people are motivated enough to put in the effort while they’re being measured. As a result, maximum tests are good at quantifying individual talent, whether it’s scholastic aptitude or speed in the 40-yard dash.

Unfortunately, the brevity of maximum tests means they are not very good at predicting future levels of effort. Sackett has demonstrated this by comparing the results from maximum tests to field studies of typical performance, which is a measure of how people perform when they are not being tested. (That, presumably, is what we really care about.) As Sackett came to discover, the correlation between these two assessments is often surprisingly low: the same people identified as the best by a maximum test often unperformed according to the measure of typical performance, and vice versa.

What accounts for the mismatch between maximum tests and typical performance? One explanation is that, while maximum tests are good at measuring talent, typical performance is about talent plus effort. In the real world, you can’t assume people are always motivated to try their hardest. You can’t assume they are always striving to do their best. Clocking someone in a sprint won’t tell you if he or she has the nerve to run a marathon, or even 12 kilometers in a soccer match.

And that’s why I find this soccer data so interesting. Sports teams, after all, have massive financial incentives to improve their assessments of human capital; tens of millions of dollars depend on the wisdom of their personnel decisions. Given the importance of effort in player performance, I’m hopeful they’ll get more serious about finding ways to track it. With any luck, these sabermetric innovations will trickle down to education, which is still mired in maximum high-stakes tests that fail to directly measure or improve the levels of effort put forth by students. As the German football league reminds us, finding ways to increase effort is extremely valuable knowledge. After all, those teams with the hardest workers (and not just the most talented ones) significantly increase their odds of winning.

Old-fashioned effort just might be the next on-base percentage.

Weimar, D., & Wicker, P. (2014). Moneyball Revisited Effort and Team Performance in Professional Soccer. Journal of Sports Economics, 1527002514561789.

 

What Your Mother Has To Do With Your Lover

"They fuck you up, your mum and dad.   

    They may not mean to, but they do.   

They fill you with the faults they had

    And add some extra, just for you."

-Philip Larkin, “This Be The Verse”

The poem has the structure and simplicity of a nursery rhyme, which makes its tragic message that much harder to take. In three short verses, Larkin paints the bleakest possible view of human nature, insisting that our flaws are predestined by our birth, for children are ruined by their parents. “Man hands on misery to man,” Larkin writes; the only escape is to “get out as early as you can, and don’t have any kids yourself.” 

Larkin, of course, was exaggerating for effect - not every parent-child relationship is a story of decay. Not every family is a litany of inherited faults. In most cases, the people who love us first don’t just fuck us up - they also fix us. They cure us of the faults we’d have if left alone.

And yet, Larkin’s short verse does describe a difficult truth, which is that poor parenting can leave lasting scars. And so the terrible cycle repeats and repeats, as we inflict upon others the same sins and errors that were inflicted upon us. The sadness, Larkin writes, “deepens like a coastal shelf.”

But why? What are the mechanics of this process? A bad mum and dad might fuck us up, but what, exactly, are they fucking up?

A new paper in Psychological Science by the psychologists Lee Raby, Glenn Roisman, Jeffry Simpson, Andrew Collins and Ryan Steele gives us a glimpse of some possible answers.* By drawing on the epic Minnesota Longitudinal Study of Risk and Adaptation, Raby, et. al. were able to show how a particular kind of poor parenting - insensitivity to the child’s signals - can have lasting effects. If we don’t feel close to our caregivers, then we struggle to stay close to other people later in life. In this sense, learning to love is like learning anything else: it requires a good teacher. 

First, a little history about the Minnesota Longitudinal Study. In the mid-1970s, Alan Sroufe and Byron Egeland began recruiting 267 pregnant women living in poverty in the Minneapolis area. What makes the Minnesota study is so unique is its time-scale: the researchers have been tracking and testing the children born to these women for nearly 40 years. They made home visits during infancy and tested them in the lab when they were toddlers. They set up a preschool and a summer camp. They watched them interact with their mothers as teenagers and kept track of their grades and test scores. They were interviewed at length, repeatedly, about nearly everything in their life.

The point of all this data - and it’s a staggering amount of data - is to reveal the stark correlations between the quality of the early parent-child relationship and the ensuing trajectory of the child. Because the correlations are everywhere. According to the Minnesota study, children who are more securely attached to their mother exhibit more self-control and independence in preschool. They score higher on intelligence tests, get better grades and are far more likely to graduate from high-school. As adults, those who experienced more supportive parenting are more supportive with their own children; they also have better romantic relationships. In their masterful summary of the study, The Development of the Person, Sroufe, Egeland and Elizabeth Carlson compare our early attachment experiences to the foundation of a house. While the foundation itself is not sufficient for shelter - you also need solid beams and sturdy roof – the psychologists note that “a house cannot be stronger than its foundation.That’s what we get as young children: the beginnings of a structure on which everything else is built.

And this brings us back to the latest follow-up study, conducted when the Minnesota subjects were between 33 and 37 years old. Raby, et. al began by asking the subjects and their long-term romantic partners a series of questions about their relationship, including the top three sources of conflict. Then, the couples were instructed to seek a resolution to one of these major disagreements.    

While the subjects were having these difficult conversations, the scientists were measuring the “electrodermal reactivity” of their hands. It’s long been known that certain types of emotional experiences, such as fear and nervous arousal, trigger increased skin reactivity, opening up the glands of the palm. (Lie detectors depend on this principle; suppressing our true feelings makes us sweat.) Not surprisingly, the couples experienced higher electrodermal reactivity when talking about their relationship problems than when doing a simple breathing exercise. These were not fun conversations.

Here’s where the longitudinal data proved essential. By comparing the changes in skin response triggered by the conflict discussion to the early childhood experiences of the subjects, the scientists were able to document a troubling correlation. In general, those who “experienced less sensitive, responsive and supportive caregiving” during childhood and adolescence displayed a significantly higher skin conductivity response when talking to their partners about their relationship problems as thirtysomethings. This correlation held even after correcting for a bevy of other variables, including the quality of the current romantic relationship, gender, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status.

What explains this finding? Why does a less sensitive parent lead to sweatier palms in middle-age? One possibility - and it’s only a possibility - is that the elevated skin conductance is a marker of “behavioral inhibition,” a sign that the subjects are holding their feelings back. Because these adults had parents who struggled to respond to their emotional needs, they learned to hide their worries away.  (Why express yourself if nobody’s listening?) This might explain why these same individuals also seem to have a tougher time discussing relationship problems with their adult partner, at least based on the spike in skin reactivity. 

As the years pass, this inability to discuss relationship issues can itself become a serious issue. For instance, research by John Gottmann and colleagues at the University of Washington found that, once the honeymoon period was over, couples who experienced more “verbal conflict” were actually more likely to stay together. “For a marriage to have real staying power, couples need to air their differences,” Gottmann writes. “Rather than being destructive, occasional anger can be a resource that helps the marriage improve over time.” Intimacy requires candor and vulnerability, not inhibition and nerves.

This new study from the Minnesota subjects comes with all the usual caveats. It has a relatively small sample size - only 37 couples participated - and correlation does not prove causation. Nevertheless, it’s powerful proof that the shadow of that first loving relationship - the one we have with our parents - follows us through life, shaping every love thereafter.

Raby, K. Lee, et al. "Greater Maternal Insensitivity in Childhood Predicts Greater Electrodermal Reactivity During Conflict Discussions With Romantic Partners in Adulthood." Psychological Science (2015)

Raby, K. Lee, et al. "The interpersonal antecedents of supportive parenting: A prospective, longitudinal study from infancy to adulthood." Developmental Psychology 51.1 (2015)

Sroufe, L. A., Egeland, B., Carlson, E. A., & Collins, W. A. (2009). The Development of the Person: The Minnesota Study of Risk and Adaptation from Birth to Adulthood. Guilford Press.

*Just a reminder that this research on poor parenting has massive public policy implications. According to a 2013 report from the Center on Children and Families by Richard Reeves and Kimberly Howard, if the “emotional support skills” of the weakest parents are merely boosted to an average level, the result would be a 12.5 percent decrease in teen pregnancy, a 9 percent increase in high-school graduation rates and an 8.3 percent decrease in criminal convictions before the age of 19.

How To Convince People They're Criminals

In November 1988, Christopher Ochoa was interrogated by police about the brutal rape and murder of Nancy DePriest at a Pizza Hut in Austin, Texas. He was questioned for nearly twelve hours. The cops told him that his best friend, Richard Danziger, had already linked him to the crime scene. They said that Ochoa would be given the death penalty - and showed him where on his arm the needle would go - unless he confessed and pled guilty. 

And so that’s what Ochoa did. He testified that he and Danziger had planned to rob the Pizza Hut, and then tied up the victim with her bra before raping her; they only shot the victim in the head after she recognized them. (Ochoa and his friend worked at another Pizza Hut in the area.) During the trial, Ochoa testified against Danziger – who had maintained his innocence – and both men were sentenced to life in prison.

In 1996, a convict named Achim Josef Marino serving three life sentences wrote letters to various Texas officials insisting that he had raped and killed DePriest, and that Ochoa and Danziger were both innocent. Marino said that evidence linking him to the crime scene, including the keys of the victim, could be found at his parents’ home. After recovering this evidence, Austin police then re-interviewed Ochoa. His story, however, remained the same: he had committed the crime. He was a guilty man.

In fact, it would take another three years before students at the Innocence Project at the University of Wisconsin Law School in Madison were able to test semen recovered from the crime scene. The genetic tests proved that neither Ochoa nor Danziger had any involvement with DePriest’s rape and murder. On February 6, 2002, both men were exonerated.

There is no more potent form of legal evidence than a confession. To know that someone confessed is to assume they must have done it: why else would they submit a guilty plea? And yet, the tragic files of the Innocence Project demonstrate that about 25 percent of false convictions are caused by false confessions, as many people take responsibility for violent crimes they didn’t commit.

These false confessions have multiple causes. Most often, they seem to be associated with devious interrogation techniques (telling Ochoa that Danziger was about to implicate him) and the use of violence and intimidation during the interrogation process (insisting that Ochoa would be sentenced to death unless he pled guilty.)

And yet, false confessions are not simply a matter of police officers scaring suspects into admissions of guilt. In many instances, they also involve the generation of false memories, as suspects come to believe - typically after hours of intense and repetitive interrogation – that they committed the crimes in question. In the scientific literature, these are sometimes referred to as “honest lies,” or “phantom recollective experiences.”

What’s so unsettling is how easy it is to implant false memories in someone else’s head. This ease is old news: in the mid-1990s, Elizabeth Loftus and colleagues famously showed how a few suggestive interviews could convince people they’d been lost in a shopping mall at the age of six. Subsequent studies have extended her findings, persuading subjects that they’d been rescued by a lifeguard after nearly drowning or had tea with Prince Charles. You can trick people into misremembering details from a car accident and get them to insist that they shook hands with Bugs Bunny at Disneyland.

However, a new study by the psychologists Julia Shaw and Stephen Porter takes this false memory paradigm in a most disturbing direction, revealing a clear connection between false memories in the lab and false confessions in the legal system. In their paper, Shaw and Porter demonstrate that a majority of people can also be persuaded that they committed serious crimes. Their memories were rich, detailed and convincing. They were also complete fictions.

Shaw and Porter began the study by contacting the primary caregivers of 126 undergraduates, asking them to report “in some detail on at least one highly emotional event” experienced by the student during childhood. Then, sixty of these students were questioned three times for about forty minutes, with each of the interviews occurring a week apart. The interviews followed a technique proven to elicit false memories, as the scientists described two events from the subject’s childhood. The first event was true, at least as described by the caregiver. The second was not.

The novelty of this study involved the nature of the false event. Half of the subjects were randomly assigned to a “criminal condition,” told that they had committed a crime resulting in police contact. The crimes themselves varied, with a third told they had committed assault, another third that they had committed assault with a weapon, and the final third that they had committed theft. Those in the non-criminal condition, meanwhile, were assigned one of the following false memories: they’d been attacked by a dog, injured during a powerful emotional experience, or lost a large sum of money and gotten into a lot of trouble with their parents. 

During the interview process, the subjects were asked to recall both the true and false events. Not surprisingly, the subjects had trouble recalling the fictional event they’d never experienced. The scientists encouraged them to try anyway. To make the false memories feel more believable, they embedded their questions about the event with accurate details, such as the city the subject had lived in at the time, or the name of a friend from his or her childhood. They also relied on a collection of interrogation strategies that have been consistently associated with the generation of false confessions. Here are the scientists describing their devious method:

"The tactics that were scripted into all three interviews included incontrovertible false evidence (“In the questionnaire, your parents/ caregivers said. . .”), social pressure (“Most people are able to retrieve lost memories if they try hard enough”), and suggestive retrieval techniques (including the scripted guided imagery). Other tactics that were consistently applied included building rapport with participants (e.g., asking “How has your semester been?” when they entered the lab), using facilitators (e.g., “Good,” nodding, smiling), using pauses and silence to allow participants to respond (longer pauses seemed to often result in participants providing additional details to cut the silence), and using the open-ended prompt “what else?” when probing for additional memory details."

In the two follow-up interviews, the subjects were, once again, asked to describe their false memories. In addition, they were asked a number of questions about the nature of these memories, such as how vivid they seemed, and whether or not they felt true.

The results were shocking. Of the thirty people assigned to the criminal condition, twenty-one of them (70 percent) now reported a false memory of being involved in a serious felony that resulted in police contact. What’s more, these “honest lies” were saturated with particulars, as the subjects reported an average of more than 71 details from the non-existent event, including 12 details about their interactions with the police officers. “This study provides evidence that people can come to visualize and recall detailed false memories of engaging in criminal behavior,” write Shaw and Porter. “Not only could the young adults in our sample be led to generate such memories, but their rate of false recollection was high, and the memories themselves were richly detailed.” While the subjects’ true memories were slightly more detailed than their false memories, and they were a bit more confident that the true events had happened, there were no obvious distinctions in form or content between their real and imagined recollections.

The study, then, is yet another reminder that our memory takes a post-modern approach to the truth, recklessly blurring together the genres of autobiography and fiction. Although our recollections tend to feel accurate and immutable, the reality is that they are undergoing constant revision: we rewrite our stories of the past in light of the present. (This is known as reconsolidation theory.) The end result is that the act of remembering is inseparable from misremembering; the memoirs we carry around in our heads are overstuffed with bullshit.

What’s most disturbing, of course, is that we believe most of it anyway, which is why Shaw and Porter were able to make people remember crimes they’d never committed. When the experiment was over, after three weeks of interviews, the scientists told the subjects the truth: There was no assault, no weapon, no theft. They had been innocent all along.

It took nearly fourteen years for Christopher Ochoa to be told the same thing.

Shaw, Julia and Stephen Porter. "Constructing Rich False Memories of Committing Crime," Psychological Science. 2015.

 

Why Dieting Is So Hard

New year, new you. For many people, a new you really means a new diet, shorn of white carbs, fried foods and ice cream. (Losing weight is, by far, the most popular New Year’s resolution.) Alas, the new you has to struggle against the habits of the old you, which knows perfectly well how delicious French fries taste. Most diets fail because the old you wins.

Why is the new you so weak? A recent study in Psychological Science by Deborah Tang, Lesley Fellows and Alain Dagher at McGill University helps reveal the profound challenges faced by the typical dieter, struggling for a slimmer waistline. We were not designed to diet; the mind does not crave celery. We were designed to gorge.

The study began by asking 29 people to evaluate pictures of fifty different foods, some of which were healthy (fruits and vegetables) and some of which were not (chocolate bars, potato chips, et. al.) The subjects were asked two questions about each picture: 1) How much they wanted to eat it, on a twenty point scale and 2) How many calories it contained.

The first thing the scientists found is that people are terrible at guessing the number of calories in a given food. In fact, there was no correlation between subjects’ estimate of calories and the actual amount of calories. This failure of dietary intuition means that even when we try to eat healthy we often end up eating the wrong thing. A Jamba Juice smoothie might seem like a responsible choice, but it’s actually a speedball of energy, with a large serving of the Orange Dream Machine clocking in at 750 calories. That’s 35 percent more calories than a Big Mac.

But here's the fascinating twist: although our conscious assessments of calories are not to be trusted, the brain seems to contain a calorie counter of its own, which is pretty reliable. (This calorie counter learns through personal experience, not nutritional labels.) In short, part of you knows that the low-fat smoothie contains more calories than the double burger, even if the rest of you is in sweet denial.

The scientists revealed this internal calorie counter in two ways. First, they showed that the amount people were willing to bid in an auction for a familiar food was closely related to its true caloric content, and not their liking ratings or the number of calories they thought the food had. In short, people were willing to pay larger amounts for food with more energy, even if they didn’t particularly like the taste of it.

The second source of evidence featured fMRI data. After showing the subjects the food photos in a brain scanner, the scientists found that activity in a part of the brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (vmPFC) was closely correlated with the actual number of calories, and not individual preferences or the estimated number of calories. And given previous scanning research linking the vmPFC to assessments of subjective value - it helps determine the worth of alternatives - this suggests that, for certain parts of the brain, “the reward value of a familiar food is dependent on implicit knowledge of its caloric content.” Kale juice is for suckers.

This research comes with a few unsettling implications. The first is a sobering reminder that the mind is a calorie-seeking machine. Although we live in a world of cheap glucose and abundant fats, part of us is still terrified of going hungry. That, presumably, is why we assiduously track the amount of energy in certain foods.

But wait - it gets worse. Not only does the brain ascribe high value to calorically dense foods, but it also seems to get a lot of pleasure from their consumption, regardless of how the food actually tastes. A 2008 study by researchers at Duke, for instance, showed that mutant mice who can’t taste sweet things still prefer to drink sugar water, simply because their gut enjoyed the fuel. (The ingestion of calories triggers a release of dopamine regardless of how the calories taste.) This suggests that we’d still crave that Jamba Juice smoothie even if it wasn’t loaded with fruit sugars; energy makes us happy. 

There are no easy fixes here, which is why losing weight is so hard. This is true at the individual level - the cravings of the old you are difficult to resist - and at the societal level, as the government seeks to persuade people to make healthier eating choices. In fact, this study helps explain why calorie labeling on menus doesn’t seem to work very well, at least in some early trials. Although the labels attempt to educate consumers about the true caloric content of foods, the brain is already tracking calories, which makes it hard for the fine-print on menus to compete. And even if we did notice the energetic heft of the smoothie it’s not clear how much we’d care. Simply put, we are wired to prefer those foods with the most fuel, even when that fuel makes us fat.

The old you wins again.

Tang, Deborah W., Lesley K. Fellows, and Alain Dagher. "Behavioral and Neural Valuation of Foods Is Driven by Implicit Knowledge of Caloric Content." Psychological Science 25.12 (2014): 2168-2176.

 

Are Toddlers Noble Savages?

The bluestreak cleaner wrasse is a trusting fish. When a large predator swims into its cleaning station, the tiny wrasse will often enter the gills and mouth of the “client,” picking off ectoparasites, dead skin and stray bits of mucus. The wrasse gets a meal; the client gets cleaned; everyone wins, provided nobody bites.

This is a story of direct reciprocity. Nature is full of such stories, from the grooming of Sri Lankan macaques to the sharing of blood by vampire bats. In fact, such reciprocity is an essential component of biological altruism, or the ability to show concern for the wellbeing of others. Despite our reputation for selfishness, human beings are big believers in altruism, at least when it's rooted in reciprocity. If somebody gives us something, then we tend to give something back, just like those fish and bats. 

But where does this belief in reciprocity come from? One possibility is that were hard-wired for it, and that altruism emerges automatically in early childhood. This theory has been bolstered by evidence showing that kids as young as eighteen months dont hesitate to help a stranger in need. In fact, human toddlers seem especially altruistic, at least when compared to our chimp relatives. As Michael Tomasello, the co-director of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, writes in his recent book Why We Cooperate: "From around their first birthday - when they begin to walk and talk and become truly cultural beings - human children are already cooperative and helpful in many, though obviously not all, situations. And they do not learn this from adults; it comes naturally."

It's an uplifting hypothesis, since it suggests that niceness requires no education, and that parents don't have to teach their kids how to be kind; all we have to do is not fuck them up. As Tomasello writes, “There is very little evidence in any of these cases…that the altruism children display is a result of acculturation, parental intervention or any other form of socialization.” If true, then Rousseau was mostly right: every toddler is a noble savage.

However, a new paper in PNAS by Rodolfo Cortes Barragan and Carol Dweck at Stanford University suggests that the reality of children’s altruism is a little more complicated. Their study provides powerful evidence that young kids do like to help and share, but only when they feel like they're part of a sharing culture. They want to give, but the giving is contingent on getting something back.

The experiments were straightforward. In the first study, thirty-four 1 and 2 year olds were randomly assigned to either a "reciprocal play" or "parallel play" warm-up session. In the reciprocal play setup, the scientist shared a single set of toys with the child, taking turns rolling a ball, pushing buttons on a musical toy and passing plastic rings back and forth. The parallel play condition featured the same toys, only the scientist and child each had their own set. In both conditions, the scientist sat three feet away from the toddler and flashed a smile every thirty seconds.

Then, six minutes after play began, the scientist removed the toys and began testing the willingness of the children to offer assistance. They demonstrated a need for help in reaching four different objects: a block, bottle, clothespin and pencil. The children were given thirty seconds to help, as the scientist continued to reach out for the object.

The differences were stark. When children were first exposed to the reciprocal play condition, they offered help on roughly three of the four trials. However, when they first played in parallel, the rate of assistance plummeted to an average of 1.23 out of four.

In the second study, the scientists replicated these results with a stranger. Instead of having the children help out the same person they'd been playing with, they introduced an unknown adult, who entered the room at the end of playtime. Once again, the children in reciprocal play were far more likely to help out, even though they'd never met the person before. As Barragan and Dweck note, these are "striking" shifts in behavior. While children in the parallel play condition tended to ignore the needs of a new person, those in the "reciprocal play condition responded by helping time and time again, despite the fact that this new person had previously done nothing for them and now gave them nothing in return."

The last two studies extended these results to 3 and 4 year old children. Once again, the young subjects were randomly assigned to either a reciprocal or parallel play condition. After a few minutes of play, they were given the chance to allocate stickers to themselves or the adult. Those in the reciprocal play condition shared far more stickers. The last study explored the cause of this increased altruism, showing that children were more likely to say that a reciprocal play partner would provide help or share a toy, at least when compared to a parallel play partner.

I have a selfish interest in this subject. As a parent of two young kids, a significant portion of my day is spent engaged in negotiations over scarce resources (aka toys). In my small sample size, appeals to pure altruism rarely work: nobody wants to share their Elsa doll to cheer up another toddler. However, if that Elsa doll is part of a group activity – we can dress her up together! – then an exchange of Disney characters just might be possible. As this paper demonstrates, the key is to make sharing feel like a non-zero sum game, or one in which cooperation leaves everyone better off.

And this is where parents come in. As Barragan and Dweck note, their data contradicts “the notion that socialization has little or no part to play in early occurring altruism.”  Instead, their work demonstrates how the modeling of adults – the mechanics of our playing - strongly shapes the sharing instincts of children. I’ve made the mistake of believing that my kids will share once they’ve got enough toys, that altruism depends on a sense of abundance. (Ergo: my many trips to the Disney store.) But this appears to be an expensive mistake. After all, the parallel play condition offered kids the same playthings in greater amounts, since they didn’t have to share the ball or rings with the grown-up. But that surplus didn’t make them generous. Rather, their generosity depended on being exposed to an engaged and attentive adult, willing to get down on the ground and roll a ball back and forth, back and forth. My takeaway? Buy less, play more.

The wrasse and the bat seem to be born knowing all about reciprocity; those species have quid pro quo in their bones. But human kindness is more subtle than that. Unless we are exposed to the right conditions – unless someone shares their toys with us - then we never learn how much fun sharing our toys can be.

Barragan, Rodolfo Cortes, and Carol S. Dweck. "Rethinking natural altruism: Simple reciprocal interactions trigger children’s benevolence." Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 111.48 (2014): 17071-17074.

The Educational Benefits of Purpose

What are the biggest impediments for teachers in the classroom? According to a recent national survey, the most frequently cited problem was “students lack of interest in learning. (Among teachers in high-poverty schools, 76 percent said this was a serious issue.) These kids know what they need to do - they just dont want to do it.

One solution to this problem is to make classroom activities less tedious. Students might be bored by the periodic table, but get excited about the chemistry of cooking. Statistics is dry; the statistics of baseball is not. In other words, the same student who appears unmotivated when staring at a textbook might be extremely motivated when the material is brought to life by a charismatic teacher.

But this approach has its limitations. For one thing, the interests of students are idiosyncratic; the spin that appeals to one child is tiresome to another. In addition, some academic tasks are inherently difficult, requiring large doses of self-control. It shouldn't be too surprising, then, that 44 percent of middle-school students would rather take out the trash than do their math homework. Not every subject can be gamified. Not everything in life is fun.

So how do we help students cope with these "boring but important" tasks? That question is the subject of a fascinating new paper in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology by David Yeager, Marlone Henderson, David Paunesku, Gregory Walton, Sidney D'Mello, Brian Spitzer and Angela Duckworth. The researchers began with the observation that, when adolescents are asked about their reasons for doing schoolwork, they often describe motives that are surprisingly selfless, or what the scientists call self-transcendent. If a student wants to become a doctor, she doesnt just want to do it for the money she probably wants to save lives, too.

While previous research has documented the benefits of self-transcendent motives among employees in unpleasant jobs hospital orderlies, sanitation workers and telemarketers all perform better when focused on the noble purpose of their work Yeager, et. al. wanted to extend this logic to the classroom. It was not an obvious move. Its easy to say 'cleaning up this trash helps people,'" wrote first author David Yeager in an email. "It's harder to say that learning fractions helps people...It wasnt clear than any kid would say that, or that it would be motivating.

The first study involved 1364 high-school seniors at ten urban public high schools, scattered across the country. The students were asked to rate, on a five point scale, whether or not they agreed with a series of statements about their motives for going to college. Some of the motives were self-transcendent ("I want to learn things that will help me make a positive impact on the world"), while others were more self-oriented ("I want to learn more about my interests.")  

After giving the students a bevy of self-assessment surveys, it became clear that self-transcendent motives were correlated with a variety of other mental variables, such as self-control and grit. As the scientists note, an important element of self-regulation is the ability to abstract up a level, so that one understands the larger purpose of a trying task. (If you dont want to eat the marshmallow, think about your diet; if youre trying to stay focused on your homework, contemplate your future career goals.) Whats more, this boost in self-regulation had real consequences, allowing the scientists to find a strong link between measures of purpose and college enrollment. Among those students with the least self-transcendent purpose, only 30 percent were actively enrolled in a college the following school year. That percentage more than doubled, to 64 percent, among students with the most purpose.

In addition to these survey questions, the scientists gave the students a new behavioral test called the "diligence task." What makes the task so clever is the way it mirrors the real-world temptations of the digital age, as students struggle to balance the demands of homework against the lure of YouTube. In the task, students were given the choice of completing tedious math problems or watching viral videos/playing tetris. While the students were free to do whatever they preferred, they were also reminded that successfully completing the math tasks could help them stay prepared for their future careers. Not surprisingly, those who reported higher levels of self-transcendent purpose were more diligent, less likely to be tempted by mindless distraction.  As the psychologists note, these results contradict conventional stereotypes about the best way to motivate low-income students. "Telling students to focus on how they can make more money if they go to college may not give them the motives they need to actually make it to college graduation," they write. Instead, these students seem to benefit the most from having selfless motives.

This research raises the obvious question: can self-transcendent purpose be taught? In their second study, Yeager, et. al. conducted an intervention, attempting to instill students with a more meaningful set of motives. They asked 338 ninth graders at a suburban high-school in San Francisco Bay area to complete a reading and writing exercise during an elective period. Half of the students were assigned to the self-transcendent purpose condition, which was designed to get them to think about their selfless motives for learning. One student wrote about wanting to become a geneticist, so they could "help improve the world by possibly engineering crops to produce more food," while another student wanted to become an environmental engineer "to be able to solve our energy problems."

The remaining students were assigned to a control condition. Instead of thinking about how to make the world a better place, these students were asked to read and write about how high-school was different than middle-school.

The intervention worked. After three months, those students with lower math and science grade point averages who were exposed to the purpose intervention saw their GPAs go up by a significant 0.2 points. (Higher achieving students also saw a slight boost in GPA, but it wasn't statistically significant.) Although the intervention only lasted for part of a single class period, it nevertheless led to a lasting boost in academic performance.

The last two studies tried to unpack this effect. After priming undergraduates to think about the self-transcendent purpose of their schoolwork, the students were asked to engage in a tedious academic exercise. They were given 100 review questions for an upcoming psychology test and encouraged to learn deeply from the activity, which meant spending plenty of time working through each question. The results were clear: students exposed to a self-transcendent purpose intervention spent nearly twice as long (49 seconds versus 25 seconds) on each review question. Importantly, this was done in a naturalistic setting, write the scientists. That is, [it involved] looking at real world student behavior on an authentic examination review, when students were unaware that they were in a random-assignment experiment. Not surprisingly, this additional effort led to higher grades on the ensuing exam.

In a final experiment, the scientists demonstrated that a purpose intervention could increase performance on the diligence task, in which students are asked to choose between a tedious math exercise and vapid viral videos. Once again, a sense of purpose proved useful, as those primed to think of selfless reasons for schooling were better at persisting at the math task, even when it was most boring. “We just don’t often ask young people to do things that matter,” wrote David Yeager by email. “We say, ‘Be selfish for now, later when you’re an adult then you can do something important.’ But kids are yearning right now to have meaning in life.”

In the paper, the scientists quote Viktor Frankl, the psychiatrist and pioneer of logotherapy, on the importance of having a meaning in life. (I wrote about Frankl here.) “Ever more people have the means to live, but no meaning to live for,” Frankl wrote, in a critique of modern life. Society excelled at satisfying our physical wants, but it tended to ignore those spiritual needs that couldn’t be measured in a lab or sold at a store.  This was a tragic error, Frankl said, for it led us to misunderstand our most fundamental nature. “A human being…doesn’t care primarily for pleasure, happiness, or for the condition within himself,” Frankl wrote. “The true sign and signature of being human is that being human always points to and is directed towards something other than itself.”

I have a feeling Frankl would have enjoyed this paper. His critics frequently accused him of deliberate ambiguity, of remaining obscure about what “meaning” actually meant. And the critics had a point: there is no pill that can give us purpose, and it’s often unclear what a therapist can do to help a patient discover his or her reason for being. In the absence of empirical evidence – his own life was his best proof - Frankl was forced to rely on aphorisms, such as this one from Nietzsche: “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.”

And that’s why I think Frankl would have found these new experiments and interventions so interesting. They are reminder that meaning matters and that its impact can be measured; an intangible sense of purpose comes with tangible benefits. Again and again, we underestimate ourselves, assuming we are selfish and shallow, driven to succeed by the fruits of success. But this research proves otherwise, showing that teenagers are capable of working for selfless goals. In fact, such goals are what make them work the hardest. Because they have a why, the how takes care of itself.

Yeager, David S., et al. "Boring but Important: A Self-Transcendent Purpose for Learning Fosters Academic Self-Regulation." Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. October 2014

The Virtues of Hunger

My kitchen cupboards are filled with Trader Joe’s snacks that I bought while shopping on an empty stomach. Chocolate edamame. Pumpkin spiced pumpkin seeds. Kale chips. Lentil chips. Veggie puffs. A medley of pretzels. A collection of trail mixes. You don’t have to be Daniel Kahneman to realize that shopping while hungry is a hazardous habit, since everything looks so damned delicious. Because we are in a so-called “hot” emotional state, we end up making impulsive decisions, buying stuff that we’ll eat on the car ride home and then never again.

And it’s not just the grocery store. Dan Ariely and George Loewenstein famously demonstrated that making male subjects sexually aroused – they showed them an assortment of erotic images – sharply increased their willingness to engage in “morally questionable behavior,” such as “encouraging a date to drink to increase the chance that she would have sex with you.” It also made them less interested in using a condom.

So the science seems clear: hot emotional states are dangerous. They make us eat the marshmallow, forgo the condom, take out the subprime loan. When making a decision, it’s always better to be calm, cool and sated.

Or not.

A new paper by Denise de Ridder, Floor Kroese, Marieke Adriaanse and Catharine Evers at Utrecht University concludes that, for a certain kind of difficult strategic decision, it’s actually better to be hungry.  One possible explanation for this effect is that hunger triggers a “hot” emotional state, making us more dependent on the urges of instinct. We are less reasonable and rational, and that’s a good thing.

The Dutch researchers describe three separate experiments, all of which had relatively small sample sizes. The first experiment features the Iowa Gambling Task (IGT), a game in which subjects are given four separate decks of cards. Each of the cards leads to either a monetary gain or loss of different amounts. The subjects were told to draw from the decks and to make as much money as possible. 

But here’s the catch – not all of the decks are created equal. Two of the decks (A and B) are full of high-risk cards. They contain larger gains ($100), but also some very punishing losses (between $150 and $1250.)  In contrast, decks C and D are relatively conservative. They have smaller payoffs, but also smaller punishments. The end result is a striking contrast in the total value of the decks: while A and B lead to an average negative return of $250 for every ten drawn cards, C and D lead to an average positive return of $250. The question of the IGT is how long it takes players to figure this out.

The novelty of this study was the introduction of the hunger variable. While all of the subjects were told to not eat or drink anything (except water) from 11 PM in the evening until the morning experiment, those in the sated condition were offered a nice breakfast before playing the card game.

The results were surprising, as hungry subjects performed significantly better on the IGT. Among the final sixty trials, those with an empty stomach drew approximately 30 percent more cards from the “advantageous decks” than those who’d just eaten. According to the scientists, the advantage of hunger is that it makes us more sensitive to the urges of emotion. As Antoine Bechara, Antonio Damasio and colleagues demonstrated in their initial studies of the IGT, it only takes about ten cards before the hands of subjects start getting “nervous” – their palms begin to sweat - whenever they reached for the bad decks. (The scientists refer to this as the “pre-hunch” phase.) However, it took about eighty cards before the subjects could explain the nervousness of their hands, and “conceptualize” the differences between the decks. In other words, the feelings generated by the body preceded their conscious decisions. The hand led the mind.

And that’s why hunger might be useful, at least when it comes to the IGT. “We argue that these benefits from being in a hot state result from a greater reliance on emotions that allow for a better recognition of risks that go hand in hand with big rewards,” write de Ridder, et. al. “This would imply that insofar [as] hot states make people more impulsive, impulsivity means that they act swiftly and without explicit deliberation.”

In a follow-up experiment, the Dutch scientists engaged in a more subtle manipulation of hunger. Instead of not feeding subjects, they randomly divided fifty students into two groups. The first group was asked to evaluate a series of snack foods according to their desire to eat it: “To what extent do you feel like having [snack food] at this moment?” The second group, meanwhile, was asked to evaluate the snacks in terms of their price, or whether they seemed cheap or expensive. Once again, those primed to feel hot emotions – the subjects asked to think about their appetites – performed significantly better on the IGT.

The last study investigated a different sort of decision. Instead of playing cards, subjects were given a series of questions about whether they wanted a small reward right away or a larger reward at a later date. (“Would you prefer $27 today, or $50 in 21 days?”) This is known as a delay-discounting task, and it’s a standard tool for measuring the impulsivity of people. Previous work has shown that hot-emotional states lead to less self-control, which is why I bought chocolate edamame at Trader Joe’s and those aroused undergrads were more willing to have unprotected sex. However, the Dutch psychologists found that those students not given breakfast – they were still hungry – were actually better at choosing long-term profit over immediate gratification. Their hot emotional state made them more patient and reasoned, at least when it came to finding the optimal level of delay.

This doesn’t mean that we can walk around the world looking at pornography and expect instant wisdom. Nor will a skipped breakfast turn us into Warren Buffett. However, when we are faced with a difficult and overwhelming decision – one in which our feelings know more than we do - then mental states that makes us more sensitive to our feelings might lead to better choices. In short, it’s not the simple stuff, like shopping in a grocery store, that benefit from our hottest emotions – it’s the hard stuff. It’s drawing from decks of cards we barely understand, or playing chess, or trying to figure out what we most want from life. That's when you want to be listening to the urges of your body. That’s when the hunger helps.

de Ridder, Denise, et al. "Always Gamble on an Empty Stomach: Hunger Is Associated with Advantageous Decision Making." PloS one 9.10 (2014): e111081.

Learning To Be Alone

By any reasonable standard, human beings are born way too soon, thrust into a world for which we are not ready. Not even close.

The strange timing of our birth reflects the tradeoffs of biology. Humans have a big brain. This big brain comes with obvious advantages. But it also leads to a serious design problem: the female birth canal, which shrank during the shift to bipedalism, is too narrow for such a large skull.

This is known as the obstetrical dilemma. Natural selection solved this dilemma in typically ingenious fashion: it simply had human babies enter the world before they were ready, when the immature central nervous system was still unable to control the body. (As the development psychologist David Bjorklund notes, if human infants “were born with the same degree of neurological maturity as our ape relatives, pregnancy would last for 21 months.”) The good news is that such premature births reduce the risk to the mother and child. The bad news is that it means our offspring require constant care for more than a decade, which is roughly twice as long as any other primate.

Such care is grueling; there’s no use pretending otherwise. Hillard Kaplan, an anthropologist at the University of New Mexico, estimates that it takes approximately 13 million calories to raise a child from birth to independence. That’s a lot of food and a lot of diapers.

But childcare is not just about the feeding and shitting and sleeping. In fact, taking care of the physical stuff ends up being the easy part. As every parent knows, what’s much harder is dealing with the emotional stuff, that whirligig of moods, desires and tantrums that define the immature mind. The world fills us with feelings, but kids don’t know how to cope with these feelings. We have to show them how.

In a new paper published in Psychological Science, a team of researchers led by Dylan Gee and Laurel Gabard-Durnam (lead authors) and Nim Tottenham (senior author) outlined the neural circuits underlying this emotional education. Although there is a vast amount of research documenting the importance of the parent-child bond – secure attachments in childhood are associated with everything from high school graduation rates to a lower-risk of heart-disease as an adult – the wiring behind these differences has remained unclear.

The main experiment involved putting 53 children and teenagers, ranging in age from four to seventeen, into an fMRI scanner. (To help the younger kids tolerate the confined space, the scientists had them participate in a mock session before the experiment. They also secured their head with a bevy of padded air pillows.) While in the scanner, the children were shown a series of photographs. Some of the pictures were of their mother, while other pictures were of an “ethnicity matched” stranger. The subjects were instructed to press a button whenever they saw a smiling face, regardless of who it was.

When analyzing the fMRI data, the scientists focused on the connection between the right side of the amygdala and the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC). Both of these are promiscuous brain areas, “lighting up” in all sorts of studies and all kinds of tasks. However, the scientists point out that the right amygdala is generally activated by stress and threats; it’s a warehouse of negative emotion. The mPFC, in contrast, helps to modulate these unfortunate feelings, allowing us to calm ourselves down and keep things in perspective. When a toddler dissolves into a tantrum because she doesn’t want to wear shoes, or go to bed, or eat her broccoli, you can blame her immature frontal lobes, which are still learning how to control her emotions. Kids are mostly id: this is why.

Here’s where things get interesting. For children older than ten, there was no significant difference in right amygdala/mPFC activity when they were flashed pictures of their mother versus a stranger. For younger children, however, the pictures of the mother made a big difference, allowing them to exhibit the same inverse connection between the amygdala and the mPFC that is generally a sign of a more developed mind. The scientists argue that these changes are evidence of “maternal buffering,” as the mere presence of a loving parent can markedly alter the ways in which children deal with their feelings. Furthermore, these shifts in brain activity were influenced by individual differences in the parent-child relationship, so that children with more secure attachments to their mother were more likely to exhibit mature emotional regulation in her presence. As John wrote in the Gospels, “Perfect love casts out fear.” Put more precisely, perfect love (and what’s more perfect than parental love?) allows kids to modulate the activity in the right amygdala, and thus achieve an emotional maturity that they are not yet capable of on their own.

While Gee, et. al provide new clarity on the wiring of this developmental process, scientists have known for decades that the process itself is exceedingly important. Although we tend to think of the human body as a closed-loop system, able to regulate its own homeostatic needs, the intricacies of the parent-child relationship reveal that we’re actually open-loops, designed to be influenced by the emotions of others. Children, in fact, are an extreme example of this open-loop system, which is why not experiencing parental buffering in the first few years of life can be such a crippling condition. Born helpless, we require an education in everything, and that includes learning to tamp down the shouts of the subterranean brain.

The child psychiatrist Donald Winnicott once observed that the goal of a parent should be to raise a child capable of being alone in their presence. That might seem like a paradox, but Winnicott was pointing out that one of the greatest gifts of love is the ability to take it for granted, to trust that it is always there, even when it goes unacknowledged. In Winnicott’s view, the process of maturity is the process of internalizing our attachments, so that the child can “forgo the actual presence of a mother or mother-figure.”

This study is a first step to understanding how this internalization happens. It shows us how the right kind of love marks the brain, how being attached to someone else endows children with a newfound maturity, a sudden strength that helps them handle a world full of scary things.

Gee, Dylan G., et al. "Maternal Buffering of Human Amygdala-Prefrontal Circuitry During Childhood but Not During Adolescence." Psychological Science (2014): 0956797614550878.

 

 

The Spell of Art

In the preface to Dave Eggers' 2000 memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, he makes the reader a generous offer. If we are bothered by the dark truth of the work - it is a book set in motion by the near simultaneous death of his parents - then we are free to pretend it's not true at all. In fact, Eggers will even help us out:

"If you are bothered by the idea of this being real, you are invited to do what the author should have done, and what authors and readers have been doing since the beginning of time: PRETEND IT’S FICTION. As a matter of fact, the author would like to make an offer...If you send in your copy of this book, in hardcover or paperback, he will send you, in exchange, a 3.5” floppy disk, on which will be a complete digital manuscript of this work, albeit with all names and locations changed, in such a way that the only people who will know who is who are those whose lives have been included, though thinly disguised. Voila! Fiction!"

It's a literary joke rooted in an old idea. The reason we believe that fiction is easier to take than the truth is because fiction requires, as Coleridge famously put it, a willing suspension of disbelief. This means, of course, that we can always suspend our suspension, return to reality, break the spell. Fiction is safer because it gives us an exit - all we have to do is remember that it's fiction.

Such intuitions about the emotional impotence of fiction (and the greater impact of The Truth) underpin a vast amount of culture. It's why there's something extra serious about movies that begin with the words "based on a true story," and why fantasy novels and comic books are considered such escapist fare. It's why horror movies need camp - we have to be reminded that it's fake, or else we'd be too scared - and why we take pulp fiction to the beach. (The truth is less relaxing.) Even my three year old daughter gets it: when she's frightened by a My Little Pony monster, she tells herself that it's all pretend. Just a cartoon. The artifice of the art is her comfort.

It's an intuition that makes sense. It sounds right. It feels right.

But it's wrong.

That, at least is the conclusion of a new study published in the Journal of Consumer Research by Jane Ebert at Brandeis University and Tom Meyvis at NYU that tested the emotional impact of fiction versus non-fiction. In one experiment, the scientists gave several dozen undergraduates a tragic story to read about a young girl who died from meningitis. Some of the subjects were randomly assigned to the "real" condition - they were told the story was true - while others were told it was a work of fiction. Then, they were asked to rate, on a nine point scale, the extent to which the story made them feel sad and distressed. Although people expected the true story to have a greater emotional impact, that wasn't what happened. Instead, those assigned to the fictional condition - they were told the death was pretend - actually felt slightly more negative emotion. The difference wasn't statistically significant (a mean of 5.79 versus 6.18) but the aesthetic expectations of the subjects were still incorrect. In short, we are much better at suspending our disbelief than we believe.

Ebert and Meyvis confirmed this in a follow-up study. Two hundred and seventy undergraduates were shown the last eight minutes of The Champ, a "movie about an ex-boxer who fights one last fight to give his young son a better future." (Spoiler alert: the boxer dies, and his son weeps over his body.) Once again, they were randomly assigned to a fictional story condition - "none of the events depicted in the movie actually happened" - or a true story condition, in which they were told that the movie was a dramatized version of a real life. As expected, there was no significant difference between the emotional reaction of those who thought the movie was pretend and those who thought it was true. However, there was one condition in which believing The Champ was fiction made a difference: when the viewing of the movie was briefly interrupted - the subjects were told, in advance, that the movie needed to be downloaded from a remote server - those who believed it was all make-believe felt significantly less sad. (Breaks didn't affect the experience of those told it was true.) According to the scientists, the brief interruptions shattered the illusion of the art, giving viewers a chance to remind themselves that it was only art.

Of course, we often watch emotional shows filled with breaks - they're called commercials. Given the data, it's interesting to think about the toll of these breaks. One possibility is that watching television shows without commercials - as happens on Netflix or HBO - provides viewers with a far a more affecting experience. But the researchers speculate that the reality of viewing is a bit more complicated. “While we don't test this in our research, we speculate that the effects of commercials will depend on what consumers do during them,” wrote Professor Ebert in an email. “If viewers are distracted by the commercials, then they may not be able to incorporate the real/fictional information while watching the movie - i.e., they won't be able to remind themselves it is only fictional. However, if viewers pay little attention to the ads they may be able to incorporate this information.” If true, this would imply that the problem isn’t commercials per se - the problem is bad commercials, since they’re the ones that interrupt the emotional spell. (I assume the same goes for DVR viewing, which requires us to fast-forward through several minutes of blurry ads.)

The larger lesson is that people are not very good at predicting their emotional reactions to aesthetic experiences. Despite a lifetime of practice, we still falsely assume that fiction won't touch us deep, that we'll be less moved by whatever isn't real. But we're wrong. And so we're gripped by Tolstoy and cry to Nicholas Sparks; we're wrecked by Game of Thrones and scared by Spider-Man. We underestimate the power of art, but the art doesn't care - it will make us feel anyway.

Ebert, Jane, and Tom Meyvis. "Reading Fictional Stories and Winning Delayed Prizes: The Surprising Emotional Impact of Distant Events.” Journal of Consumer Research. October 2014.

Are You Paying Attention?

Thank you for participating in my psychology experiment on decision-making. Please read the instructions below:

Most modern theories of decision-making recognize the fact that decisions do not take place in a vacuum. Individual preferences and knowledge, along with situational variables can greatly impact the decision process. In order to facilitate our research on decision-making we are interested in knowing certain factors about you, the decision maker. Specifically, we are interested in whether you actually take the time to read the directions; if not, then some of our manipulations that rely on changes in the instructions will be ineffective. So, in order to demonstrate that you have read the instructions, please ignore the sports items below. Instead, simply continue reading after the options. Thank you very much.

Which of these activities do you engage in regularly? (write down all that apply)

1)    Basketball

2)    Soccer

3)    Running

4)    Hockey

5)    Football

6)    Swimming

7)    Tennis

Did you answer the question? Then you failed the test.

The procedure above is known as an Instructional Manipulation Check, or IMC. It was first outlined in a 2009 paper, published in The Journal of Experimental Psychology, by the psychologists Daniel Oppenheimer, Tom Meyvis and Nicolas Davidenko. While scientists have always excluded those people who blatantly violate procedure – these are the outliers whose responses are incoherent, or fall many standard deviations from the mean – it’s been much harder to identify subjects whose negligence is less overt. The IMC is designed to filter these people out.

The first thing to note about the IMC is that a lot of subjects fail. In a variety of different contexts, Oppenheimer et al. found that anywhere from 14 to 46 percent of survey participants taking a survey on a computer did not read the instructions carefully, if at all.

Think, for a moment, about what this means. These subjects are almost certainly getting compensated for their participation, paid in money or course credit. And yet, nearly half of them are skimming the instructions, skipping straight ahead to the question they’re not supposed to answer.

This lack of diligence can be a serious scientific problem, introducing a large amount of noise to surveys conducted on screens. Consider what happened when the psychologists tried to replicate a classic experiment in the decision-making literature. The study, done by Richard Thaler in 1985, goes like this:

You are on the beach on a hot day. For the last hour you have been thinking about how much you would enjoy an ice-cold can of soda. Your companion needs to make a phone call and offers to bring back a soda from the only nearby place where drinks are sold, which happens to be a [run-down grocery store] [fancy resort]. Your companion asks how much you are willing to pay for the soda and will only buy it if it is below the price you state. How much are you willing to pay?

The results of Thaler’s original experiment showed that people were willing to pay substantially more for a drink from a fancy resort ($2.65) than from a shabby grocery store ($1.50), even though their experience of the drink on the beach would be identical.  It’s not a rational response, but then we’re not rational creatures. (Thaler explained this result in terms of “transaction utility,” or the tendency of people to make consumption decisions based on “perceived merits of the deal,” and not some absolute measure of value.)

As Oppenheimer et. al point out, the IMC is particularly relevant in experiments like this, since the manipulation involves a small change in the text-heavy instructions (i.e., getting a drink from a resort or a grocery store.) When Oppenheimer et. al first attempted to replicate the survey, they couldn’t do it; there was no price difference between the two groups. However, after the scientists restricted the data set so that only those participants who passed the IMC were included, they were able to detect a large shift in preferences: people really were willing to pay significantly more for a drink from a resort. The replication of Thaler’s classic paper isn’t newsworthy, of course; it’s already been cited more than 3,800 times. What is interesting, however, is that the online replication of an offline experiment required weeding out less attentive subjects.

The results of the IMC give us a glimpse into the struggles of modern social science: it’s not easy finding subjects who care, or who can stifle their boredom while completing a survey. If nothing else, it’s a reminder of our natural inattentiveness, how the mind is tilted towards distraction. As such, it’s a cautionary tale for all those scientists, pollsters and market researchers who assume people are paying careful attention to their questions. As Jon Krosnick first pointed out in 1991, most surveys require cognitive effort. And since we’re cognitive misers – always searching for the easy way out – we tend to engage in satisficing, or going with the first acceptable alternative, even when it’s incorrect.

This is a methodological limitation that’s becoming more relevant. In recent years, scientists have increasingly turned to online subjects to increase their n, recruiting participants on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk and related sites. This approach comes with real upside: for one thing, it can get psychology beyond its reliance on Western Educated subjects from Industrialized, Rich and Democratic countries. (This is known as the W.E.I.R.D. problem. It’s a problem because the vast majority of psychological research is conducted on a small, and highly unusual, segment of the human population.)

The failure rates of the IMC, however, are a reminder that this online approach comes with a potential downside. In a recent paper, a team of psychologists led by Joseph Goodman at Washington University tested the IMC on 207 online subjects recruited on Mechanical Turk. The scientists then compared their performance to 131 university students, who had been given the IMC on a computer or on paper. While only 66.2 percent of Mechanical Turk subjects passed the IMC, more than 90 percent of students taking the test on paper did. (That's slightly higher than the percentage of students who passed on computers.) Such results lead Goodman, et. al to recommend that “researchers use screening procedures to measure participants’ attention levels,” especially when conducting lengthy or complicated online surveys.

We are a distractible species. It’s possible we are even more distracted on screens, and thus less likely to carefully read the instructions. And that’s why the IMC is so necessary: unless we filter out the least attentive among us, then we’ll end up collecting data limited by their noise. Such carelessness, of course, is a fundamental part of human nature. We just don’t want it to be the subject of every study.

Oppenheimer, Daniel M., Tom Meyvis, and Nicolas Davidenko. "Instructional manipulation checks: Detecting satisficing to increase statistical power."Journal of Experimental Social Psychology 45.4 (2009): 867-872.

Goodman, Joseph K., Cynthia E. Cryder, and Amar Cheema. "Data collection in a flat world: The strengths and weaknesses of Mechanical Turk samples."Journal of Behavioral Decision Making 26.3 (2013): 213-224.

 

The Draw-A-Person Test

Imagine a world where intelligence is measured like this:

A child sits down at a desk. She is given a piece of paper and a crayon. Then, she is asked to draw a picture of a boy or girl. “Do the best that you can,” she is told. “Make sure that you draw all of him or her.” If the child hesitates, or asks for help, she is gently encouraged: “You draw it all on your own, and I’ll watch you. Draw the picture any way you like, just do the best picture you can.”

When the child is done drawing, the picture is scored. It’s a simple process, with little ambiguity. One point is awarded for the “presence and correct quantity” of various body parts, such as head, eyes, mouth, ears, arms and feet. (Clothing gets another point.) The prettiness of the picture is irrelevant. Here are six drawings from four-year olds:

The Draw-A-Person test was originally developed by Florence Goodenough, a psychologist at the University of Minnesota. Based on her work with Lewis Terman – she helped revise and validate the Stanford-Binet I.Q. test – Goodenough became interested in coming up with a new measure of intelligence that could be given to younger children. And so, in 1926, she published a short book called The Measurement of Intelligence by Drawings which described the Draw-A-Person test.* Although the test only takes a few minutes, Goodenough argued that it provided a window into the child mind, and that “the nature and content of children’s drawings are dependent primarily upon intellectual development.” In other words, those scrawls and scribbles were not meaningless marks. Rather, they reflected something fundamental about the ways in which we made sense of the world. The act of expression was an act of intelligence, and should be treated as such.

In her book, Goodenough described the obvious benefits of her intelligence test. It was fast, cheap and fun. What’s more, it seemed to be measuring something real, as children tended to generate a consistent set of scores over time. (In other words, the test was reliable.) And yet, despite these advantages, the Draw-A-Person test largely fell out of favor by the 1970s. One explanation is that it was lumped in with other “projective” techniques, such as the Rorschach Test, that were repeatedly shown to be inaccurate, too tangled up with psychoanalytic speculation.

However, a new study by Rosalind Arden and colleagues at King’s College London suggests that Goodenough’s test still has its uses, and that it manages to quantify something important about the developing mind in less than ten minutes. “Goodenough’s genius was to take a common childhood product and see its potential as an indicator of cognitive ability,” they write. “Our data show that the capacity to realize on paper the salient features of a person, in a schema, is an intelligent behavior at age 4. Performance of this drawing task relies on various cognitive, motoric, perceptual, attentional, and motivational capacities.”

How’d the scientists show this? By giving the test to 7,752 pairs of British twins, the scientists were able to compare the drawing performance of identical twins, who share all of their genetic material, with that of non-identical twins, who only share about half. This allowed them to tease out the relative importance of genetics in determining scores on the Draw-A-Person test. (All of the twin pairs were raised in the same household, at least until age 4, so they presumably had a similar home environment.) The results were interesting, as the drawings of identical twins were much more similar than those of non-identical twins. There is no drawing gene, of course, but this result does suggest that the sketches of little kids are shaped by their genetic inheritance. In fact, the results from a single drawing were as heritable among the twin pairs as their scores on more traditional intelligence tests.

Furthermore, because the researchers had scores from these intelligence tests they were able to compare performance on the Draw-A-Person test with a subject’s g factor, or general intelligence. The correlations were statistically significant but relatively modest, which is in line with previous studies. This means that one shouldn’t try to predict IQ scores based on the scribbles of a toddler; the two variables are related, but in weak ways.

However, a more interesting result emerged over time, as the scientists looked at the relationship between drawing scores at the age of 4 and measures of intelligence a decade later, when the twins were 14. According to the data, the children’s pictures were just as predictive of their intelligence scores at the age of 14 as various intelligence tests given at the age of 4. "This study does not explain artistic talent,” write the scientists. “But our results do show that whatever conflicting theories adults have about the value of verisimilitude in early figure drawing, children who express it to a greater extent are somewhat brighter than those who do not." 

Such studies trigger a predictable reaction in parents. I've got a three-year old daughter - I couldn't help but inspect her latest drawings, counting up the body parts. (There's even an app that will help you make an assessment.) But it's important to note that this is all nonsense; the science does not support my anxieties. "I too fossicked around in old drawers to look for body-parts among the fridge-magnet scrawls of my former 4-year old," Dr. Arden wrote in an email. "I realised quickly the key question was not 'is she bright?', but 'did we have fun? Did I treasure that wonderful, lightspeed flashing childhood properly?'" In a recent article put out by King's College, Arden expands on this idea, observing that while her "findings are interesting, it does not mean that parents should worry if their child draws badly. Drawing ability does not determine intelligence, there are countless factors, both genetic and environmental, which affect intelligence in later life.”

I find this study most interesting as a history-of-science counter factual, a reminder that there are countless ways to measure human intelligence, whatever that is. We've settled on a particular concept of intelligence defined by a short list of measurable mental talents. (Modern IQ tests tend to focus on abilities such as mental control, processing speed and quantitative reasoning.) But Goodenough’s tool is proof that the mystery of smarts has no single solution. The IQ test could have been a drawing test.

This sounds like a silly conjecture. But it shouldn’t. As the scientists note, figurative art is an ancient skill. Before there were written alphabets, or counting systems, humans were drawing on the walls of caves. (There’s evidence that children participated in these rituals as well, dragging their tiny fingers through the wet clay and soft cave walls.) "This long history endows the drawing test with ecological validity and relevance to an extent that is unusual in psychometrics," write the scientists. After all, the Make-A-Person test measures one of the most uniquely human talents there is: the ability to express the mind on the page, to re-describe the world until life becomes art, or at least a crayon stick figure.

*Goodenough originally called it the Draw-A-Man test, but later realized that the gendered description made it harder for young girls.

Arden, Rosalind, et al. "Genes Influence Young Children’s Human Figure Drawings and Their Association With Intelligence a Decade Later." Psychological Science (2014)

The Tragedy of Leaded Gas

In December 1973, the EPA issued new regulations governing the use of lead in gasoline. These rules, authorized as part of the Clean Air Act and signed into law by President Nixon, were subject to years of political and legal wrangling. Automobile manufacturers insisted the regulations would damage car engines; oil companies warned about a spike in gasoline prices; politicians worried about the negative economic impact. In 1975, a consortium of lead producers led by the Ethyl Corporation and DuPont sued the EPA in an attempt to stop the regulations from taking effect. They argued that “lead is naturally present in the environment” and that the health impact of atmospheric lead remained unclear.

The EPA won the lawsuit. In a March 1976 opinion, the U.S. Court of Appeals of the District of Columbia established the so-called precautionary principle, noting that the potential for harm – even if it has not been proven as fact – still leaves society with an obligation to act. “Man’s ability to alter his environment,” wrote the judges, “has developed far more rapidly than his ability to foresee with certainty the effects of his alterations.” And so the phaseout of leaded gasoline took hold: by 1990, the amount of lead in gasoline had been reduced by 99 percent.*

This federal regulation is one of the most important achievements of the American government in the post WWII era. That it’s a largely unanticipated achievement only makes it more remarkable. According to the latest data, the removal of lead from gasoline is not simply a story of clean air and blue skies. Rather, it has become a tale of sweeping social impact, a case-study in how the removal of a single environmental toxin can influence everything from IQ scores to teenage pregnancy to rates of violent crime.

For the last several years, Jessica Wolpaw Reyes, an economist at Amherst College, has been studying the surprising impact of this environmental success. Her studies take advantage of a natural experiment: for a variety of “mostly random” reasons, including the distribution network of petroleum pipelines, the number of pumps available at gas stations and the local assortment of cars, the phaseout of leaded gasoline didn’t happen at a uniform rate across the country. Rather, different states showed large variation in their consumption of leaded gasoline well into the 1980s. If lead poisoning was largely responsible for the spike in criminal behavior – rates of violent crime in America quadrupled between 1960 and 1991 - then the removal of lead should predict the pace of its subsequent decline. (In many American cities, crime has returned to pre-1965 levels.) In other words, the first states to transition fully to unleaded gasoline should also be the first to experience the benefits.

That’s exactly what Reyes found. In a 2007 study, Reyes concluded that “the phase-out of lead from gasoline was responsible for approximately a 56 percent decline in violent crime” in the 1990s. What’s more, Reyes predicted that the Clean Air Act would continue to generate massive societal benefits in the future, “up to a 70 percent drop in violent crime by the year 2020.” And so a law designed to get rid of smog ended up getting rid of crime. It’s not the prison-industrial complex that keeps us safe. It’s the EPA.

As Reyes herself noted, these correlations raise far more questions than they answer. She concluded her 2007 paper, for instance, by noting that if the causal relationship between lead and crime were real, and not a statistical accident, then the rate of lead removal should also be linked to other behavioral problems, including substance abuse, teenage pregnancy, and childhood aggression. Violent crime, after all, does not exist in a vacuum.

In an important new working paper, Reyes has expanded on her previous research, showing that exposure to lead in early childhood has far-reaching negative effects. By employing data on more than eleven thousand children from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth (NLSY), she has revealed the relationship between levels of lead in the blood and impulsive behavior in a number of domains. Consider the steep decline in teenage pregnancy in the 1990s, which has proved difficult to explain. According to Reyes, changes in lead levels caused by the Clean Air Act have played a very significant role:

“To be specific, we can consider the change in probability associated with a change in blood lead from 15 µg/dl to 5 µg/dl, a change that approximates the population-wide reduction that resulted from the phaseout of lead from gasoline. This calculation yields a predicted 12 percentage point decrease in the likelihood of pregnancy by age 17, and a 24 percentage point decrease in the likelihood of pregnancy by age 19 (from a 40% chance to a 16% chance). This is undoubtedly large: the lead decrease reduces the likelihood of teen pregnancy by more than half.

Similar patterns held for aggressive behavior and criminal behavior among teenagers. In both cases, the rise and fall of these social problems appears to be closely correlated with the rise and fall of leaded gasoline. In short, says Reyes, exposure to lead “triggers an unfolding series of adverse behavioral outcomes.” It makes it harder to children to resist their most risky impulses, whether having unprotected sex or getting into a violent fight. (Other research shows that lead is closely linked to lower IQ scores: the typical increase in lead levels caused by leaded gasoline decreases IQ scores, on average, by roughly six points.) Placed in this context, the correlation with crime rates is no longer so surprising. Rather, it’s the natural outgrowth of a poisoned generation of children, unable to fully control themselves.

There’s one last interesting conclusion in Reyes’ new study. Because the NLSY survey contained information about parental income and education, she was able to see how leaded gasoline impacted kids across the socioeconomic spectrum. While most environmental toxins disproportionately harm poor families – they can’t afford to live in less polluted places – leaded gasoline was, in the words of Dr. Herbert Needleman, an “equal opportunity pollutant…not limited to poor African-American children.” In fact, as Reyes points out, atmospheric lead was one of the few adverse environmental influences that wealthier families could not escape, as “it was in the very air children breathed.” As a result, Reyes’ analysis shows that the children of higher-income parents were, on average, more harmed by leaded gasoline, showing a steeper drop-off across a range of negative behavioral outcomes. “In a way, the advantaged children had more to lose,” Reyes writes. “Consequently, gasoline lead may have been an equalizer of sorts.”

There are, of course, inherent limitations to these sorts of econometric studies. There might be hidden confounds, or systematic differences between generations of children that are unaccounted for by the statistical model. As Jim Manzi has pointed out, the variation in the state-by-state adoption rates of unleaded gasoline might not be quite as random as it seems, but instead be linked to subtle “differences in political economy that in turn will affect changes in crime rates.” Society is more complicated than our statistics.

But it’s important to note that the link between lead and societal problems is not merely a statistical story. Rather, it is rooted in decades of neurological evidence, which tell the same causal tale at a cellular level. Lead has long been recognized as a neurotoxin, interfering with the release of transmitters in the brain. (The chemical seems to have a particular affinity for the NMDA receptor, a pathway essential for learning and memory.) Other studies have shown that high levels of lead to apoptosis, a fancy word for the mass suicide of brain cells. And then there’s the Cincinnati Lead Study, which has been tracking 376 children born between 1979 and 1984 in the poorer parts of the city. While the study has shown a strong link between lead exposure and violent crime – for every 5 ug/dl increase in blood levels at the age of six, the risk of arrest for a violent crime as a young adult increases by nearly 50 percent – it has also investigated the impact of this exposure to lead on the brain. In a 2008 paper published in PLOS Medicine, a team of researchers led by Kim Cecil used MRI scans to measure the brain volume of enrolled subjects who are now between the ages of 19 and 24. The scientists found a clear link between lead levels in early childhood and the loss of brain volume in adulthood. Most telling was where the loss occurred, as the scientists found the greatest damage in the prefrontal cortex, a region closely associated with impulse control, emotional regulation and goal planning. (The correlations were strongest among male subjects, which might explain why men with lead exposure are more prone to antisocial behavior.)

At the end of her new working paper, Reyes makes an argument for “strengthening the threads” between disparate disciplines, closing the explanatory gap between policy-makers, public health professionals, environmentalists and social scientists. As she notes, it’s becoming increasingly clear that the boundaries of these fields overlap, and that any complete explanation of a complex social phenomena (say, the fall in crime rates) must also concern itself with leaded gasoline, the prefrontal cortex and economic inequality. “The foregoing results suggest that lead – and other environmental toxicants that impair behavior – may be missing links in social scientists’ explanations of social behavior,” Reyes writes. “Social problems may be, to some degree, rooted in environmental problems.”

*Despite the legal decision, the lead industry continued to fight the implementation of the EPA regulations. As Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner argue in Lead Wars, the main impetus for the removal of lead from gasoline was not the new rules themselves but rather the introduction of catalytic converters, which were installed to combat sulfur emissions. Because lead damaged the platinum catalyst in the converter, General Motors and other car manufacturers were eventually forced to call for the end of leaded gasoline. 

Via: Marginal Revolution

Reyes, Jessica Wolpaw. "Lead exposure and behavior: Effects on antisocial and risky behavior among children and adolescents." NBER Working Paper, August 2014

Reyes, Jessica Wolpaw. "Environmental policy as social policy? The impact of childhood lead exposure on crime." The BE Journal of Economic Analysis & Policy 7.1 (2007).

Markowitz, Gerald, and David Rosner. Lead Wars: The Politics of Science and the Fate of America's Children. Univ of California Press, 2013. p. 77-80

Communism, Inequality, Dishonesty

Dan Ariely has been trying, for years, to find evidence that different cultures give rise to different levels of dishonesty. It's an attractive hypothesis – “It seems like it should be true,” Ariely told me - and would add to the growing literature on the cultural influences of human nature. No man is an island, etc.

Unfortunately, Ariely and his collaborators have been unable to find any solid evidence that such differences in dishonesty exist. He's run experiments in the United States, Italy, England, Canada, Turkey, China, Portugal, South Africa and Kenya, but every culture looks basically the same. Bullshit appears to be a behavioral constant.

Until now.

A new study by Ariely, Ximena Garcia-Rada, and Heather Mann at the Duke University Center for Advanced Hindsight and Lars Hornuf at the University of Munich has found a significant difference in levels of dishonesty among German citizens. But here’s the catch – these differences exist within the sample, between people with East German and West German roots.

The experiment went like this. A subject was given a standard six-sided die and asked to throw it forty times. Before the throwing began, he or she was told to pick one side of the die (top or bottom) to focus on. After each throw, the subject wrote down the score from their chosen side. Reporting higher scores made them more likely to get a bigger monetary payout at the end of the experiment.

What does this have to do with lying? Because the subjects never told the scientist which side of the die they selected, they could cheat by writing down the higher number, switching between the top and bottom of the die depending on the roll. For instance, if they rolled a one, they could pretend they had selected the bottom side and report a six instead.

Not surprisingly, people took advantage of the wiggle-room, reporting numbers that were higher than expected given the laws of chance. What was a bit more surprising, at least given Ariely’s history of null results, was that East Germans were significantly more dishonest. While those with roots in the West reported high rolls (4,5 or 6) on 55 percent of their throws, those from the East reported high rolls 60 percent of the time. “Since the scale of possible cheating ranges from 50 percent high rolls to 100 percent high rolls, cheating by West Germans corresponds to 10 percent and cheating by East Germans to 20 percent of what had been feasible,” write the scientists. “Thus, East Germans cheated twice as much as West Germans overall.”

There are a few possible explanations here. The first is that the communist experience of East Germans undermined their sense of honesty. As the scientists note, life in East Germany was defined by layers of deceit. “In many instances, socialism pressured or forced people to work around official laws,” they write. And then there was the Stasi intelligence bureaucracy, which spied on more than a third of all East German citizens. “Unlike in democratic societies, freedom of speech did not represent a virtue in socialist regimes,” write Ariely, et. al. “It was therefore often necessary to misrepresent your thoughts to avoid repressions from the regime.” And so lying became an East German habit, a means of survival, a way of coping with the scarcity and repression. This helps explain why older East Germans – they spent more time under the communist regime – were also more likely to cheat. “Socialistic regimes in general are corrupt, but I don’t think that has to be the case,” Ariely told me. “Personally, I think that in a small socialist society, like a kibbutz, socialism could prosper without corruption.”

But there’s another possible explanation, which is less about the ideological struggle of the Cold War and more about the particular politics of Germany. According to this account, the primary cause of East German dishonesty is not the crooked influence of socialism but rather the hazards of social comparison. East Germans aren’t more dishonest because of their communist experience – they’re more dishonest because of their post-communist existence.

A little history might be helpful. In the run-up to unification, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl famously declared that the five states of Eastern Germany would quickly become “blooming landscapes” under the capitalist system. That didn’t happen. Instead, East Germany was defined by a surge of bankruptcies, chronic unemployment and mass migration. While the situation has certainly improved in recent years – the unemployment rate is “only” a third higher in the East – German income still shows a sharp geographic split, with East Germans making 30 percent less money on average. “If you were born in the East, unification came with lots of promises,” Ariely says. “These promises did not come to full fruition. And I think if you’re an East German then you’re reminded every day of these broken promises…Even generations later there’s still a financial gap.”

Such resentments have real consequences. Previous research has shown that exposing people to abundant wealth, such as a large pile of cash, leads to higher levels of cheating. The same pattern exists when people feel underpaid and when they believe that they’ve been treated unfairly. In short, there appears to be something contagious about ethical lapses. In an unjust world, anything goes; since nothing can make it right, we might as well do wrong.

While both explanations might contribute to the observed result, it’s worth noting that these explanations come with contradictory implications. If communism itself is the problem, then the admirable goal of social equality is inherently flawed, since it’s bound up with increased levels of dishonesty. “To ensure that everyone gets the same thing, you need to give some people less than they deserve, or they think they deserve,” Ariely says. “And when people feel life has treated them unfairly, maybe they feel more okay with cheating and lying.”

However, if the main cause of East German dishonesty is social comparison – those feelings of inferiority generated by being a poor person in a rich country – then the problem isn’t the political quest for equality: it’s current levels of inequality in wealthy capitalist societies. (Remember that Chinese citizens did not show higher levels of dishonesty, which suggests that communism is not solely responsible for the effect.) “It’s getting to the point where there are very few places where the rich and poor really interact,” Ariely says, in reference to the United States. “The contrast is getting more obvious, and that’s a painful daily reminder if you’re not well off.” These reminders seem to make us less honest, or at least more willing to cheat.

So there is no obvious cure. The noble ethos of Marx – “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” – seems just as problematic as the unequal outcomes of modern capitalism, in which some mixture of ability and luck determine all. Every political system has flaws that make us dishonest, which is another way of saying that maybe the problem isn’t the system at all.

Ariely, Dan, et al. "The (True) Legacy of Two Really Existing Economic Systems." (2014).

The Purpose Driven Life

Viktor Frankl was trained as a psychiatrist in Vienna in the early 1930s, during the peak of Freud’s influence. He internalized the great man’s theories, writing at one point that “all spiritual creations turn out to be mere sublimations of the libido.” The human mind, powered by its id engine, wanted primal things. Mostly, it just wanted sex.

Unfortunately, Frankl didn’t find this therapeutic framework very useful. While working as a doctor in the so-called “suicide pavilion” at the Steinhof hospital – he treated more than 1200 at-risk women over four years - Frankl began to question his training. The pleasure principle, he came to believe, was not the main motive of existence; the despair of these women was about more than a thwarted id.

So what were these women missing? Why were they suicidal? Frankl’s simple answer was that their depression was caused by a lack of meaning. The noun is deliberately vague, for there is no universal fix; every person’s meaning will be different. For some people, it was another person to care for, or a lasting relationship. For others, it was an artistic skill, or a religious belief, or an unwritten novel. But the point was that meaning was at the center of things, for “life can be pulled by goals as surely as it can be pushed by drives.” What we craved wasn’t happiness for its own sake, Frankl said, but something to be happy about.

And so, inspired by this insight, Frankl began developing his own school of psychotherapy, which he called logotherapy. (Logos is Greek for meaning; therapeuo means “to heal or make whole.” Logotherapy, then, literally translates as “healing through meaning.”)  As a clinician, Frankl’s goal was not the elimination of pain or worry. Rather, it was showing patients how to locate a sense of purpose in their lives. As Nietzsche put it, “He who has a why to live can bear with almost any how.” Frankl wanted to help people find their why.

Logotherapy now survives primarily as a work of literature, closely associated with Frankl’s best-selling Holocaust memoir, Man’s Search for Meaning. Amid the horrors of Auschwitz and Dachau, Frankl explored the practical utility of logotherapy. In the book he explains, again and again, how a sense of meaning helped his fellow prisoners survive in such a hellish place. He describes two men on the verge of suicide. Both of the inmates used the same argument: “They had nothing more to expect from life,” so they might as well stop living in pain. Frankl, however, used his therapeutic training to convince the men that “life was still expecting something from them.” For one man, that meant thinking about his adored child, waiting for him in a foreign country. For the other man, it was his scientific research, which he wanted to finish after the war. Because these prisoners remembered that their life still had meaning, they were able to resist the temptation of suicide. 

I was thinking of Frankl while reading a new paper in Psychological Science by Patrick Hill and Nicholas Turiano. The research explores one of Frankl’s essential themes: the link between finding a purpose in life and staying alive. The new study picks up where several recent longitudinal studies have left off. While prior research has found a consistent relationship between a sense of purpose and “diminished mortality risk” in older adults, this new paper looks at the association across the entire lifespan. Hill and Turiano assessed life purpose with three questions, asking their 6163 subjects to say, on a scale from 1 to 7, how strongly they disagreed or agreed with the following statements:

  1. Some people wander aimlessly through life, but I am not one of them.
  2. I live life one day at a time and don’t really think about the future.
  3. I sometimes feel as if I’ve done all there is to do in life.

Then the scientists waited. For 14 years. After counting up the number of deaths in their sample (569 people), the scientists looked to see if there was any relationship between the people who died and their sense of purpose in life.

Frankl would not be surprised by the results, as the scientists found that purpose was significantly correlated with reduced mortality. (For every standard deviation increase in life purpose, the risk of dying during the study period decreased by 15 percent. That’s roughly equivalent to the reduction in mortality that comes from a engaging in a modest amount of exercise.) This statistical relationship held even after Hill and Turiano corrected for other markers of psychological well-being, such as having a positive disposition. Meaning still mattered. A sense of purpose – regardless of what the purpose was – kept us from death. “These findings suggest the importance of establishing a direction for life as early as possible,” write the scientists.

Of course, these correlations cannot reveal their cause. One hypothesis, which is currently being explored by Hill and Turiano, is that people with a sense of purpose are also more likely to engage in healthier behaviors, if only because they have a reason to eat their kale and go the gym. (Nihilism leads to hedonism.) But that’s only a guess. Frankl himself remained metaphysical to the end.  The closest he ever got to a testable explanation was to insist that man was wired for “self-transcendence,” which Frankl defined as being in a relationship with “someone or something other than oneself.” While Freud stressed the inherent selfishness of man, Frankl believed that we needed a purpose as surely as we needed sex and water and food. We are material machines driven by immaterial desires.

Frankl, Viktor E. Man's Search for Meaning. Simon and Schuster, 1985.

Haddon Klingberg, Jr. When Life Calls Out To Us: The love and lifework of Viktor and Elly Frankl. Random House, 2012.

Hill, Patrick L., and Nicholas A. Turiano. "Purpose in Life as a Predictor of Mortality Across Adulthood." Psychological Science (2014): 0956797614531799.